WASHINGTON -- Vice President George Bush cast a rare tie-breaking vote Tuesday, saving the 'Star Wars' program from an $800 million cut critics sought to make in the controversial defense system.
With the Senate deadlocked 50-50 on a move to kill the amendment, written by Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., Bush voted with Reagan administration allies to defeat the proposal.
The Senate's version of the 1988 defense bill set aside $4.5 billion for the Strategic Defense Initiative, and Johnston wanted to cut it back to $3.7 billion.
It was the seventh time in his nearly seven years in office Bush, in his role as president of the Senate, was called upon to break a tie.
Four times he cast tie-breaking votes on defense bills, including two votes to rescue a chemical weapons programs. He broke a tie in the nomination of Daniel Manion to be an appellate judge, and he broke a tie on a budget bill.
After that dramatic vote, the Senate voted 51-47 to kill a proposal by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to ban for a year tests of a U.S. anti-satellite weapon as long as the Soviets refrain from testing their system.
Although Senate leaders hope to finish the measure this week, the bill's fate is uncertain. Once reconciled with a $289 billion House version, it is under a veto threat from President Reagan because of provisions in both versions restricting SDI development to the traditional interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty governing missile defense systems.
Johnston argued the SDI effort has shifted emphasis from intensive exploration of new technologies -- such things as lasers and particle beam weapons -- to work on a space-based kinetic kill vehicle, known in defense shorthand as a 'smart rock.'
That part of the program envisions garages of rockets in space that can home in on rising Soviet missiles and destroy them, and their pods of warheads, by the sheer force of impact.
There has been, Johnston said, 'a dramatic shift' in the program, 'from an astrodome to a program that is less than 20 percent effective ... and the cost has now risen to over $100 billion. The question is, 'Can we afford that?''
The House's bill provides $3.1 billion for the SDI program, which this year is getting $3.5 billion. Since Reagan announced it in 1983, $9 billion has been devoted to the research effort.
Sen. Pete Wilson, R-Calif., contended Johnston wanted to disrupt successful work on the kinetic kill system and do more work on the exotic technologies that are decades away, telling the Senate, 'He is urging us today to drop the ham to pick up the weenie.'
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said Johnston's amendment could undercut arms control negotiations, and Sen. Dan Quayle, R-Ind., said, 'This is a nice, quiet way to put SDI into the grave.'
Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., also attacked Johnston's position, saying, 'There are unanswered questions. How on Earth do you get to an answer if you deny us from doing (research). It's a killer amendment.'