WASHINGTON -- The Senate approved a $265.3 billion defense authorization bill yesterday that would give President Clinton $7.5 billion more than he has asked in Pentagon spending, in defiance of a presidential veto threat.
Passage came on a vote of 64-34 after lawmakers agreed to water down a Republican-drafted provision that would have required the administration to deploy a national missile-defense system by 2003.
The measure now goes to a joint House-Senate conference committee, where the administration is expected to mount a vigorous campaign to eliminate several key provisions that officials had warned might prompt Mr. Clinton to veto the bill.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry has said that he still is not sure whether he will recommend a veto of the authorization bill, even after approval of the compromise. "I still have problems [with it]," he told reporters.
Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that the lawmakers still face "high hurdles" in removing enough of the objectionable provisions to avoid a presidential veto.
Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota was even more pessimistic.
"This is a bill that is not anywhere near becoming law," he asserted. He said he was "just amazed, really, by [the] stupidity of what we are doing . . . today."
Besides the dispute with the administration, the conferees also must resolve sharp differences between the Senate version of the bill and a measure that the House passed almost three months ago.
The Senate measure, for example, follows Mr. Clinton's recommendations to kill the controversial B-2 bomber and to build a third Seawolf submarine.
The House bill would keep the B-2 alive but eliminate the $H Seawolf project.
The action on the national anti-missile defense system reflected a bipartisan compromise -- worked out just before Congress left for its August recess -- that diluted a stronger provision written into the original bill.
The initial proposal would have required the administration to deploy an anti-missile defense system by the year 2003 at several sites -- apparently in violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
By contrast, the compromise approved on Tuesday would only require that the Pentagon have such a system ready to field by that date, but leaves it up to the administration and Congress to decide whether to deploy it.
The Republicans won some significant battles during the weeks of floor-action on the bill:
* The overall legislation would revamp much of Mr. Clinton's military budget and force the administration to spend more than it wants on weapons-modernization and reserve programs.
* At the same time, it would sharply reduce spending for such key administration programs as subsidies for technology development and aid to countries of the former Soviet Union to help them dismantle nuclear weapons.
* It also would sharply restrict U.S. financing of U.N. peacekeeping missions -- a move that the administration contends would "undermine the president's ability to carry out . . . U.S. foreign policy" effectively.
Combined with the version passed by the House, the legislation constitutes the Republicans' most daunting challenge to Mr. Clinton's defense policies since they took power on Capitol Hill in January.
Republicans say Mr. Clinton has cut military spending too far, and has left the services unable to keep up with weapons-modernization and research and development.
Mr. Clinton has proposed a $257.8 billion military budget for fiscal 1996, which will begin on Oct. 1 -- a decline of 4.3 percent from the current year's budget.
The House version of the bill would provide $267.3 billion for defense.
This Republican push for faster development -- and ultimately the quick deployment -- of a national missile-defense system was one of the elements in the GOP barrage.
Republicans have been arguing that the United States is undefended against attacks by long-range ballistic missiles -- particularly from Third World countries such as North Korea -- and wanted a system put in place by 2003.
But the administration contends that it will take at least a decade for Third World missiles to become a serious threat.
It has mapped out an approach that would develop the missile-defense technology more slowly.