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With Soviet demise, Democrats try to shift defense spending to domestic needs


WASHINGTON -- Reports that B-2 Stealth bombers -- the world's most expensive airplanes -- aren't as stealthily radar-evading as once projected don't faze Representative Barney Frank.

"It's OK, because none of the countries we would deploy them against can afford radar," joked the Massachusetts Democrat. "But we could paint them to look like birds."

The Pentagon may not even have that option if Mr. Frank and his allies have their way. Designed to penetrate the most sophisticated detection systems, the bombers have come under attack from Democrats who say that the Soviet Union no longer has the means or the will to deploy the kind of radar network the B-2 was designed to fool.

As goes the B-2, so goes much else in the defense budget. With the apparent demise of the Soviet Union, many Democrats are hungrily eyeing the Pentagon's annual allowance, angling to redeploy a few of its billions to other, largely domestic, needs.

They say that the emerging world order leaves the Pentagon's best-laid plans in tatters and that the federal government's spending priorities ought to be reshuffled accordingly.

"It's time to adjust our defense budgets to the new realities of Soviet-American relations," Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, told colleagues last week, adding that he planned to "put the priorities of Americans first in the remainder of the 102nd Congress."

Mr. Mitchell's statement amounts to a veritable call to arms for many Democrats, who have been groping for a way to shift the public's attention from the president's strength, foreign matters, to domestic issues, which some see as his weakness.

Though the Soviet collapse affords President Bush yet another opportunity to showcase his diplomatic skills, they believe it also providesDemocrats with an opportunity to capitalize on a perceived diminution of the Soviet threat.

But that is easier said than done. Last fall, a massive, multiyear, deficit-reduction deal locked in spending limits for defense, domestic and foreign aid programs through fiscal year 1993, erecting "fire walls" between the three areas to prevent lawmakers from siphoning funds from one to another.

Under the agreement, lawmakers can cut the defense budget -- or another part of the federal budget -- but they may only use the savings to reduce the budget deficit.

That kind of political straitjacket has since provoked howls among frustrated Democrats, who want to use the money to fund any number of other priorities, from emergency farm aid and unemployment assistance to a Marshall Plan-style relief effort for Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

They dream of an "Operation Jericho" to break the walls separating the three areas of the budget.

"Let me put it this way: If the news from the Soviet Union were as bad as it is good, then don't you think the administration would come to us and say, 'We have to amend the budget agreement so we can spend more on defense,' " Mr. Frank said.

"So all we're saying is, the world has changed, and it's time to spend more money here at home."

The plea has fallen on deaf Republican ears. White House officials have rejected any talk of revisiting the budget agreement, a stance backed by Republican allies and a few Democrats on Capitol Hill.

"It would be irresponsible to base long-range decisions on events of the past month," said Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Representative Bill Dickinson of Alabama, the top-ranked Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, noted that during the failed Soviet coup, "people said we had to spend more on defense after all. Now they say less. Which is it?"

Furthermore, some Republicans express fear that minor adjustments will open the floodgates to reckless spending. "If we start to revise the agreement willy-nilly, then the whole thing will unravel, and we'll have a mess," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M.

But Republicans also have some hard-nosed political reasons for opposing change. The agreement has served GOP interests insofar as it has prevented Democrats from forcing the implementation of high-priced, domestic programs that tend to curry favor with the voters.

Thus, a $5.3 billion plan to extend unemployment benefits hit the shoals of the budget deal when Mr. Bush refused to declare the economic emergency that would have waived the spending limits and allowed the bill's implementation.

Similarly, House Democrats have struggled to squeeze a five-year, $153.5 billion transportation bill into the space allocated by the budget accord.

The imbroglio over the transportation bill underscores the nature of the challenges wrought by the budget accord.

Under its terms, excess spending is supposed to be paid for by new taxes. Thus, a special nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax was supposed to raise the necessary funds for the transportation package.

But political opposition killed the arrangement. Meanwhile, an attempt to resurrect the nickel tax has become snarled in a spat between the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee -- which says the tax will bring in only 3.75 cents because businesses that pay the tax receive a deduction -- and the Public Works panel, which rejects the proposal outright.

"You can see how these sorts of problems work to our advantage," said one Republican aide.

Yet the House's Democratic leadership appears as reluctant as Republicans to reopen the budget deal, refusing to endorse calls for its overhaul.

And, while such prominent Democrats as New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo have called for the outright overthrow of the budget deal, Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann observed that "the interesting question is whether they believe what they say."

The problem, said Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif., chairman of the House Budget Committee, is that the public perceives the Democrats as being weak on economic management skills and fiscal discipline.

"If we're the ones to open up [the budget deal], we leave ourselves wide open to the old accusations," Mr. Panetta said. "Do we really want to do that?"

Yes, some Democrats say, if that's what it takes.

An early attempt to bust the budget deal failed earlier this month, when the Senate rejected a proposal to expand health, education and low-income programs with a $3.1 billion transfer from the defense budget.

The proposal, offered by presidential candidate Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, promises to be the first of a series of rear-guard initiatives designed to chip away at the accord.

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