Democrats Slam Missile Defense While Bush Is Away

Democrats on Capitol Hill condemned as unneeded and unworkable the national missile defense system that President Bush is trying to promote to U.S. allies during his current tour of Europe.

While lawmakers often mute their criticisms of a president when he is abroad, Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, said Tuesday the issue was too important to ignore, "particularly when the attention of the country and the attention of the world is focused."

Allen joined six other House Democrats and several anti-missile defense activist groups at a news conference to oppose Bush's proposal as ineffective, too expensive and a threat to national security. "It's based on the idea of build first, figure it out later," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., a physicist.

Building a limited anti-missile system to defend the nation against future threats from nations such as North Korea and Iran was one of Bush's main campaign promises, and the idea has an aggressive advocate in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. They argue that those countries within five years may have missiles capable of hitting U.S. territory.

But the plan, which effectively scraps the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, is strongly opposed by China and Russia and faces a hard sell in Europe.

The Clinton administration approved funding for research into missile defense but put off a decision on putting a system into operation. Bush is committed to building the system and the $310 billion defense budget for fiscal 2002 includes $3.8 billion for various national missile defense projects.

That figure could grow when Rumsfeld submits a revised budget later this year reflecting an administration review of the nation's defense needs. Rumsfeld is also reportedly considering a small-scale defense system that would be based in Alaska and ready for deployment by the end of 2004.

Even if Bush persuades European leaders of the benefits of the system, he faces an uphill battle in Congress, particularly after the Democratic takeover of the Senate. New Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., is a skeptic, as is new Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Daschle said last week he was "mystified" by the concept of spending up to $100 billion on a program that may not even work. "There is such a rush to deploy that I think it's going to be an embarrassment to them, to the country."

In the House as well, Democrats, and some Republicans, argue against spending billions on unproven technology when the country has more pressing needs. NMD, the acronym for national missile defense, "means no more dollars" for health care, education, prescription drug benefits and other needs, said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif.