In a 52-48 vote, the Senate defeated an amendment to a $310 billion bill authorizing defense programs that would have required that the Pentagon test the proposed missile-killing system against countermeasures an adversary might use to stop it.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a leading advocate of the national missile defense system, said the testing proposal by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was an "unprecedented effort by the Senate to micromanage a weapons system testing program. In no other program has the Senate tried to legislate in this way, to dictate to the Department of Defense how a classified national security testing program should be conducted."
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., in support of the amendment, asked, "Is it too much to ask that we be certain that this system works before we move ahead with deployment?"
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that the Durbin amendment was unnecessary because the Pentagon is already including the effects of countermeasures in its experiments.
The Pentagon has set a timetable for having a national anti-missile defense system ready for initial deployment by the end of 2005. Estimates of the cost of building that system, which would be designed only to counter very limited attacks from such hostile nations as North Korea, run as high as $60 billion.
The proposed system is also strongly opposed by nuclear weapons nations such as Russia and China, which say it violates the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty limiting missile defense systems.
Despite those obstacles, there is strong sentiment in Congress for proceeding with research and development of the defense system.
But Durbin argued that "once that system becomes operational it should work." He said that "if the fate of Americans will truly hang in the balance, we owe this nation, and every family and every mother father and child, our very best effort in building a credible effective deterrence."
His amendment also requires an independent review team convened by the defense secretary to assess whether enough tests are conducted to assure the effectiveness of the system before it becomes operational.
President Clinton has said he would decide soon whether to keep the project moving toward the 2005 target date for deployment, but that decision may be postponed because of a failed missile intercept test over the Pacific last week. The device that was supposed to destroy an incoming missile in the test did not separate from its booster rocket.
It was the second failure out of three tests of the intercept program.
The defense authorization bill, which the Senate was to vote on Thursday, would provide $1.9 billion for the National Missile Defense program, more than double the amount authorized in fiscal 2000.
The bill budgets nearly $310 billion, $4.5 billion more than the president requested and $19 billion more than the current year, for weapons procurement, military readiness and personnel.
Iincludes a 3.7 percent pay raise for members of the military, $64 billion for procurement and $4.1 billion for operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and Southwest Asia.
The Senate bill also includes an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to add offenses motivated by sexual orientation, sex or disability to the list of hate crimes covered under federal law.
The House version has provisions to improve the health care coverage of military retirees and expand their access to prescription drugs.
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