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Star Wars On Capitol Hill

Republicans and the Clinton administration found themselves on the same side of a dispute over a national ballistic-missile defense Tuesday, with GOP leaders welcoming belated administration support for a long-standing GOP priority.

"We usher in a new era of American security," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said at a rally on the Capitol steps.

Although Democrats once belittled the project, begun by President Reagan in the early 1980s, as "Star Wars," President Clinton and most congressional Democrats did an about-face earlier this year - partly in response to revised estimates of nuclear missile capability, particularly on the part of North Korea and Iran.

Hastert and other Republican leaders stood alongside a huge map suggesting that a North Korean ballistic missile, similar to one tested last year, could nearly reach Chicago.

"It might be aimed at Chicago and hit St. Louis, but surely they have that capability," said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., long an outspoken supporter of a national missile defense system.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., called the current lack of a defense against incoming ballistic missiles "our Achilles' heel."

Mr. Clinton, who vetoed similar legislation in the past, said he would sign it. However, congressional leaders delayed sending it to him until after the conflict in Kosovo died down.

The rally on the Capitol steps, under a broiling midday sun, came a day after the administration's top arms-control official said the escalating long-range missile capability of North Korea and Iran were partly responsible for a change in the administration's attitude.

"Cold war disciplines are gone. Technology is more widely available," John Holum, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, told a Senate confirmation hearing.

Since Congress passed that bill in May, two developments have occurred on the missile-defense front:

  • Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed, for the first time, to consider reopening the landmark 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty easing prohibitions against either American or Russian ballistic-missile defense systems.
  • After six straight failures, a $3.8 billion experimental missile defense system scored its first hit in a test at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, shooting down an incoming test rocket.
Holum, in testimony Monday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voiced strong support for deploying a missile defense system.

He said a 1998 report by a panel headed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had "a profound impact" on Clinton administration policy.

The Rumsfeld panel concluded that North Korea and Iran could develop long-range missiles within five years and probably are secretly doing so.

The threat of a nuclear attack by a small power "is clearly very prominent" as an ara of concern, far more so than just a few years ago, Holum said.

"In light of new estimates on the ballistic missile threat, in particular from North Korea and Iran, national missile defense is now closer to becoming another integral part of our strategy against proliferation," Holum testified.

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