Levin Tries to Kill Missile Defense

Under the guise of fiscal discipline, Senate Democrats tried last week to kill national Ballistic Missile Defense by cutting off funding for some of the program’s most important research projects.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), an outspoken opponent of a national missile defense system, had removed $815 million from vital elements of the program, on a party-line vote in his committee May 9. Last week, he almost fended off a GOP attempt to restore the funding in the 2003 defense authorization bill (S. 2514) – despite a threat from President Bush that he would veto the measure if the missile defense money was left out.

Levin’s cut, Republicans said, not only chopped more than a 10% from Bush’s $7.6 billion request for missile defense but it also gutted some of the most important elements of the missile defense program.

“The debate about missile defense is not a debate about spending – it’s a debate about priorities,” Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex) told Human Events. “The people who are against it are against it because they don’t want it??? Their cut, they would argue, just cuts the parts out without which none of the rest of its makes sense. It’s just like a guy who takes the ignition out of a car and says, ‘Well, you’ve got 98% of your car.”

Levin, who has repeatedly asserted that a missile shield will precipitate anew arms race with Russia or China, denies that he was trying to kill missile defense. The $815 million, he told HUMAN EVENTS, “is money which, after a very thorough analysis, was determined to be redundant and not needed this year??? Everybody here supports proceeding with the missile defense program, but there’s no use putting money there that can’t be properly spent when we’ve got a war on terrorism to win.”

Without Leaving Fingerprints

But defense and legislative experts told HUMAN EVENTS that the system is meant to be redundant, allowing for three separate chances to down enemy missile. Levin’s opposition to funding what is believed to be the mist effective stage of missile defense – the interception of enemy missiles shortly after lift-off – led Senate Republican to accuse him of trying to kill the program slowly without leaving fingerprints.

“We cannot be in a position to be blackmailed by China, North Korea, or any other rogue state,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), referring to those nations’ increasing missile capabilities. “I thin Sen. Levin is living in a Cold War environment. He needs to get into the 21st Century.”

On June 25m Levin lined up his Democratic colleagues to vote against a GOP attempt to restore full funding for missile defense on the Senate floor.

That vote never took place, to the relief of some vulnerable Senate Democrats facing re-election this year. Nonetheless, GOP Senate sources tell HUMAN EVENTS that by the time the rollcall was expected to take place, Levin had successful arm-twisted nearly every moderate Senate Democrat- including Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Max Cleland (Ga.)- to vote against restoring funding for crucial parts of the program. Landrieu, who claims to support missile defense, nevertheless gave a 20-minute speech in support of Levin’s cuts on June 24.

Both sides heavily anticipated a near tie vote. If Republican Senators Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) and George Voinovich (Ohio), as expected, voted against he missile defense funding, and Democrats Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Fritz Hollings (S.C.) and Zell Miller (Ga.) defected and voted for it, the vote would have been 49 to 50 against. To stave off defeat, Republicans secretly brought Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) still recovering from major heart surgery- to the Hill, planning, if necessary to cast the crucial 50th vote. But Democrats got wind of Helms’ arrival, and put off the missile defense vote until the next day.

One June 26, Levin, loathe to expose vulnerable Democrats to a losing vote on missile defense, and the Republicans, unsure they could win a rollcall vote, decided to agree on a compromise. Instead of earmarking missile defense dollars, Republicans let Levin insert language that gives President Bush discretion on how to spend the money and passed the funding on a voice vote.

Even with the insertion, Senate GOP aides still worried about the fate of the money because of possible tricks in the upcoming House-Senate conference on the bill. They also recognized that Levin’s leaving the money at Bush’s indiscretion leaves the door open for politicization of its use later on.

“Levin is trying to say, ‘The President says missile defense is more important than homeland security,” a GOP legislative aide told HUMAN EVENTS. “He’s trying to embarrass the President.”

Heritage Foundation defense expert Baker Spring explained that Levin’s cuts would have gone to the very heart of the missile defense program. “What he wants to do is make, in my judgment, prejudicial decisions regarding the particular technological approaches to missile defense,” he said.

Spring said that despite Levin’s complaints, redundancy is actually the best defense against ballistic missiles from rogue nations. A redundant system, he said, provides for several independent chances to shoot down enemy missiles- in the initial boost-phase, the mid-course phase o the missile’s flight, and again in the terminal phase as it approaches impact.

“The administration wants a layered defense that overlaps in certain ways,” Spring explained. “It indeed has some redundancies to provide defense in depth.”

Levin’s cuts would have fallen heavily on boost-phase interception and space-based interceptors, which Spring called “the most high-leverage, and the most capable of being effective.”

“When you deploy a missile in boost phase, it’s traveling slowly, it’s relatively fragile, it can’t deploy countermeasures,” he said. “There are a lot of things you can achieve with boost phase that will make this defense, among the three elements of the layered defense??? the most potent capability.”

The proposed cuts in missile defense spending, had they come to a straight up-or-down vote, would have left several Senate Democrats in a very uncomfortable position. Two weeks after inserting billions of dollars in non-emergency, non-terrorism-related items into an emergency anti-terrorism spending bill (see HUMAN EVENTS, June 17, page 19) to keep more than $1 billion dollars in non-emergency pork-barrel earmarks in a 2002 supplemental appropriations bill intended to fund the war on terror. Among the items allowed in that bill were:

  • $175 million for a laboratory in Iowa that will take eight years to build- or more than $85 million in excess of what was requested by President Bush;
  • $2.5 million in “emergency” funds to map Hawaiian coral reefs;
  • $1 million to study “self administered high frequency chest oscillation therapy” at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Maryland (in the state of Democratic Senate appropriator Barbara Mikulski);
  • $11 million to bail out struggling New England fishermen;
  • $5 million for a Mathematics and Science Education Clearinghouse in Ohio (home of Republican Senate appropriator Mike DeWine);
  • $26.8 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to map U.S. urban areas;
  • $3 million to drill for water in New Mexico, (home of Sen. Pete Domenici (R.), also a member of the appropriations committee);
  • $1 billion for Pell grants.
  • The Senate eventually passed this pork-laden bill by a vote of 72 to 24 on June 6, but three weeks later could barely find a majority to save the proposed national missile defense system.


    View All