WASHINGTON -- President Reagan and Senate Democratic leader Robert Byrd endorsed the death penalty for some drug pushers Friday in anti-drug legislation that appeared certain to be approved in the final weeks of the 99th Congress.
Senate Republican leader Robert Dole gave top priority to drug-control measures -- a red-hot election year issue -- after the House approved, 392-16, a multibillion-dollar bill Thursday night.
The House bill orders Reagan to stop drug trafficking within 45 days by using the military to intercept smugglers, and imposes the death penalty on those pushers who intentionally cause a death as part of their operations.
The package, which also provides money for preventing and treating drug abuse and enforcing anti-drug laws, is estimated to cost $3 billion to $4 billion over three years.
In an apparent shift, Reagan dropped his opposition to the House-passed death penalty, although he will not propose it in his own bill, details of which he is to announce Sunday.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Reagan supports capital punishment in certain drug cases. But he said Reagan would not propose capital punishment for fear it would ignite a controversy that would jeopardize the legislation.
'The House voted last night overwhelmingly to add this ... and presumably it was not controversial in the House,' said Speakes.
'If it is the death penalty, so be it,' said Byrd. 'I know it sounds tough and mean-spirited. But what about the children who go to our schools and who become addicts, slaves, to this costly, deadly habit. What about them? What about their lives?
'We have been soft too long,' Byrd said. 'Now let us try it our way. Let us get tough on criminals.'
Dole charged that the drug issue has become a 'political contest' and said that 'we need to slow down and find out where we are going and what we want to do.'
Senate Democrats have put together and made public anti-drug legislation, but Dole said Republicans are waiting for administration proposals before drafting their measure.
Although Congress is scheduled to adjourn Oct. 3, Dole made it clear that the Senate will follow the lead of the House and pass anti-drug legislation in time for Congress to send a compromise bill to Reagan for his signature before the session ends.
The Senate is expected to begin action, probably on an expedited basis, as soon as the administration sends to Capitol Hill its proposals.
'Drug abuse is a top priority for the Senate majority leader,' Dole said. 'But I can't ignore the realities of federal deficits. And I am not about to open the floodgates of a tidal wave of spending.
'That's what happened in the House last night,' Dole added. 'It's about time the House learned to kick the spending habit.
'The Senate will address the drug issue,' Dole said. 'Senate Republicans have been ready to work in a bipartisan spirit -- not for the good of politics or party gain -- but for the welfare of the American people.'
Byrd, replying to Dole, said, 'I realize that cost is a factor in this or any other matter. But I think also have to contemplate the cost of doing nothing.
'When I say not doing something, I say not doing something that is meaningful and effective in dealing with this drug epidemic,' Byrd said.
'If we do not take effective, immediate and meaningfull action then the cost in wasted lives and increasing crime will certainly dwarf any cost of any meaningful, effective program which might otherwise have been the case.'