WASHINGTON -- Vice President George Bush cast a dramatic, tie-breaking vote Thursday night that saved the 10-warhead MX missile from extinction but opponents said the close vote indicates 'hopes for the MX are dimming.'
The crucial vote was tied 48-48 on a motion to kill an amendment by Sen. Lawton Chiles, D-Fla., when Bush declared, 'The Senate being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative and the motion to table is agreed to.'
'It means that hopes for the MX are dimming,' Chiles said after the 49-48 defeat of his proposal to put the missile on ice for a year while examining the feasibility of a small, single-warhead mobile missile.
Earlier, the Republican-dominated Senate rejected, 55-41, a Democratic attempt to eliminate funds in the $291 billion defense authorization bill for production in fiscal 1985 of 21 missiles. That amendment sought to eliminate the $2.6 billion for the missiles but apply $1.4 billion of the saved funds to conventional warfare programs.
Bush, who was brought in Wednesday night by the administration to preside over the Senate in case his vote was needed to turn back a new GI Bill, last broke a Senate tie with a vote Nov. 8 to restore money for nerve gas weapons.
As president of the Senate, Bush votes in the case of ties.
Chiles said President Reagan lobbied hard all afternoon to preserve the missile against his assault, and Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., told reporters after the vote, 'We won.'
'There are never going to be 100 MX missiles deployed in Minuteman silos,' he said, declaring the vote was an expression of severe dissatisfaction with the vulnerable basing mode planned for the missile.
Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, head of the Armed Services Committee, said Chiles' plan 'would kill the program,' but Chiles argued he was not trying to terminate the program, merely stall it a year while the smaller missile was investigated.
Democrats argued the weapon was a destabilizing first-strike weapon that did nothing to enhance arms control among the superpowers.
The Senate was engaged in a marathon session to finish the overall bill and was ready to work until dawn if necessary to finish the measure.
The MX's vulnerability in existing silos, said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., ruins its use as an arms control bargaining chip. President Reagan, he said, has 'opposed every single arms control agreement ever to come before the Senate.' As for the missile, Kennedy said, 'The time has come to put the MX out of its misery.'
Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said, 'I haven't seen the Soviets racing to the bargaining table. So much for the bargaining chip theory.' Hart challenged 'anyone supporting this missile to make one argument that (it) increases stability in the nuclear arms race.'
Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, argued the 'Midgetman' single-warhead missile now being developed is a better deterrent because 'we have infinite flexibility' on where to put it. 'They don't know where to aim. They don't know where to shoot.'
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chief sponsor of the initial Democratic amendment that in effect would save $1.2 billion out of the defense bill, termed the MX 'perhaps the premier case of defense priorities gone astray' because of its vulnerability, its first-strike capability and the various basing systems proposed over the years.
'No one should be fooled into thinking maintaining strong nuclear forces depends on building the MX. The truth, the hard truth, is that we do not need it. It wastes money, and it makes a nuclear exchange more, not less likely,' Leahy said.
Speaking out for the MX was Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who said the Soviets are not at arms talks because of cruise and Pershing 2 missile deployments, not the MX. And, said Warner, the Soviets 'don't want to allow the perception' in an election year that Reagan is willing to talk arms control. Killing the program, he said, 'rewards the Soviets for unilaterally withdrawing from arms talks.'
President Reagan initially asked for 40 of the huge missiles, but the Armed Services committee pared it to 21. The House-passed bill authorizes 15 missiles, but with a restriction that the money can be spent only after Congress takes another vote on the program next spring.
As a prelude to the MX debate, the Senate rejected 55-43 an attempt by Sen. Alan Dixon, D-Ill., to send the bill back to Tower's committee with instructions to hack out another $5.3 billion.
Once the Senate finishes with the bill, it will have to go to conference with the House to settle the many differences between the two versions.
At $291 billion, the Senate's bill amounts to the military component of a deficit reduction package the administration worked out with Republican congressional leaders and is trying to push through Congress. It provides more than 7 percent real growth in defense spending, against the 5 percent in the House's $284 billion version of the bill.