Cochran, Weldon Reintroduce Missile Defense Legislation

 Craig Cerniello

SKEPTICAL OF the Clinton administration's commitment to national missile defense (NMD), Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) reintroduced separate legislation on January 20 and February 4, respectively, calling for the deployment of an NMD system. Both Cochran's measure, which the White House has threatened to veto, and Weldon's bill have been approved by committee and could come up for a floor vote in March.

The Senate failed by just one vote in both May and September 1998 to bring Cochran's NMD legislation to a floor vote. (See ACT, May 1998 and August/September 1998.) On January 20, Cochran reintroduced the bill, which states that "It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate)."

On February 9, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the "National Missile Defense Act of 1999" by a vote of 12-7, largely along party lines. The bill (S. 257) has 52 co-sponsors, including four Democrats: Daniel Akaka (HI), Ernest Hollings (SC), Daniel Inouye (HI) and Joseph Lieberman (CT).

During his January 20 press conference, Secretary of Defense William Cohen stated that the main factor dictating an NMD deployment decision will be the maturity of the technology—the same benchmark established in the Cochran bill.

The administration, however, later clarified its position. In a February 3 letter to Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), National Security Adviser Samuel Berger said he would recommend to President Clinton that S. 257 be vetoed because of the "unacceptably narrow definition" upon which an NMD deployment decision would be made. According to Berger, the administration's deployment decision will be based on technological readiness, the nature of the missile threat, cost factors and arms control considerations. "S. 257 suggests that neither the ABM Treaty nor our objectives for START II and START III are factors in an NMD deployment decision," Berger wrote.

The Weldon bill

On February 4, Weldon introduced H.R. 4, a one-sentence bill stating "That it is the policy of the United States to deploy a national missile defense." The House Armed Services Committee approved the legislation on February 25 by a vote of 50-3.

Weldon originally introduced the bill in August 1998, but it never came up for a floor vote. The administration, which is not expected to make an NMD deployment decision until June 2000, has not yet formally commented on H.R. 4. The legislation already has 30 Democrats among its 97 co-sponsors.

Weldon stated that a commitment to NMD deployment would "give meaning to the money that the Clinton administration has announced it will spend on [NMD]. Without a commitment to deploy, that money is just a placeholder, liable to be used for something else in the defense budget." Furthermore, he argued, such a commitment would "move the United States beyond the question of 'if' we deploy to 'when' we deploy [an NMD]" and would send a message to so-called "rogue nations" that their pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles "will not go unchallenged."