'Star wars' plan resurfaces with support of Democrats


PAUL SARBANES - he's a U.S. senator from Maryland - voted for "star wars" the other day. So did Barbara Mikulski, the junior U.S. senator from Maryland. They're all for 'star wars!' (Cue Bill Murray, from old "Saturday Night Live" lounge-singer routine.) Nothing but 'star wars!!' 'St-st-st-star wars!!' Actually, Sarbanes and Mikulski opposed 'star wars' when Ronald Reagan proposed it. That was 15 years ago, when we were still in the throes of a Cold War with the evil Soviet empire. Remember? (Sighs, tears of nostalgia, latent fumes of Stolichnaya.) Fifteen years ago, when our president suggested the United States should build a high-tech, space-based missile detection-destruction system, Democrats dismissed the whole thing as a multibillion-dollar pie-in-the-sky boondoggle for the defense industry. As a candidate for Senate in 1986, Mikulski quoted scientists who doubted the 'star wars' shield would ever work. Sarbanes urged cuts in Reagan's budget for the Strategic Defense Initiative, as 'star wars' was officially known.

Now it's officially known as the National Missile Defense Program. We've already spent between $40 billion and $50 billion on it - with nothing in the sky to show for it - and, thanks to the Senate and the House of Representatives, we're going to spend billions more.

And you thought the age of out-of-control defense spending had passed with the Cold War. You thought we could cut the Pentagon's budget and put more money into teachers' salaries.

The Democrats are a muddled lot. Beginning with the president, they don't seem to know what to stand for these days. The Clinton budget submitted last month called for $6.6 billion for a missile defense system. Why? Supposedly because China, North Korea and Iran can hit us with nuclear missiles. If we deploy a missile safety net in the sky, we can all breathe more easily. (Just how the system would stop, say, a truck bomb or an anthrax attack here on the ground isn't clear.)

Assuming we are in immediate danger of nuclear attack, then we ought to come up with a better and cheaper plan because a missile shield will take years to develop, and it will certainly cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Will it protect us from attack from anywhere in the world? Wouldn't a truly comprehensive, global system eventually bankrupt us?

With all these questions and minus a truly compelling argument, this looks like make-happy money for defense contractors, who are generous contributors to political campaigns.

With so many Democrats joining in Wednesday's 97-3 Senate vote and yesterday's 317-105 House vote to commit the Pentagon to build the system, the party covered its backside from Republican accusations of being too soft. (Sarbanes has announced that he's running for re-election next year.)

Only three senators voted against the bill, all of them Democrats: Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Richard Durbin of Illinois. "The United States Senate, with this vote, is virtually giving a blank check to this project," Durbin said. "It would give us a false sense of security and be completely ineffective."

I asked that senators from Maryland explain their votes. Didn't hear back from Sarbanes yesterday. He's deliberative; it might take some time to get an answer. Mikulski? Tied up in a meeting all day. What's to say about a shallow, cover-your-backside vote anyway?

A tale of two cousins

So Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore's departing mayor, isn't departing yet, even though he has a nice job with a big law firm lined up. Why the delay?

Some say Schmoke won't leave office before his term ends in December because it wouldn't look good to the public. (Which assumes that we would notice.) Schmoke says he wants to finish some things. (Which assumes that he started some things.)

Another theory goes like this: He doesn't want Lawrence Bell, the City Council president who would succeed him, to have an edge going into the September primary. (Which assumes that Kweisi Mfume won't get into the race.)

Poor Bell. He still hasn't announced his candidacy. He's waiting, like the rest of us, for Mfume to decide, once and for all, whether he's going to run for mayor. Like the rest of us, he's probably getting just a little bit tired of Mfume's coyness and all the speculation about his intentions. Bell seems to be haunted by his famous cousin these days. One of his aides gave the council president a ticket to the Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis fight in New York last week. So he went, and who's there? Mfume, making a splash. He can't get away from the guy.

McGwire on the Web

From the people who brought you the allegedly stolen Cal Ripken lineup card: the Mark McGwire Web address. North Shore Sports LLC, a telephone auction house based outside Chicago, ended up in court when it was hired by ex-Orioles skipper Phil Regan to sell his lineup card used in Cal's 2,132nd game. The matter is still in litigation, as the Orioles seek to recover what they allege is team property.

Meanwhile, North Shore's new catalog is soliciting bids for "Mc-Gwire.com," a Web address registered, legally, several years ago by a California computer instructor with no known connection to the Cardinals' home run king. By law, an Internet address belongs to whoever registers it first and pays the nominal, annual fee. Some registrants have made money beating big corporations to the registration office and then selling them back the right to use their corporate names on the Internet.

The owner of McGwire.com has established a Web page and reported hundreds of thousands of virtual visitors. He's established a minimum bid of $5,000 for what North Shore says could be a lucrative opportunity for someone willing to sell advertising on the site or otherwise profit from the player's success.

Pub Date: 03/19/99

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