WASHINGTON—Congressional Democrats want to stop the Bush administration from pouring concrete for a proposed ballistic-missile defense system in Europe that's riled U.S.-Russia relations this week at the Group of Eight summit in Germany.
Russian President Vladimir Putin blasted the plan and threatened to re-target Europe with nuclear weapons. But his sharp anti-American rhetoric isn't the reason that Congress wants to block President Bush's plan to start building the system in Europe before the end of his term.
Congressional Democrats voted to cut funds for a Europe-based missile-defense system earlier this spring because it's still far from developed, tested and proved reliable. They also said the Bush administration shouldn't go it alone on the long-range plan but rather should work it out with fellow NATO members.
The European missile-defense system—if it's ever developed and proved to work—is intended to protect the United States and part of Europe from a long-range missile from Iran—if Iran develops or purchases one. Intelligence experts estimate that Iran isn't likely to develop such a missile before 2015.
Bush administration officials say the threat that Iran could develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them against the United States and Europe means that there's no time to wait. They propose starting to work on the system before NATO allies agree and before the technology is developed.
Bush wants to spend an estimated $3.5 billion for a radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland. If the scheme worked as envisioned, an interceptor would destroy an incoming warhead before it reached its target. Critics say it could be foiled with technological countermeasures.
No one sees it as an effective defense against Russia's huge nuclear force, which would easily overwhelm it.
The administration requested $310.4 million for the system for next year. The House of Representatives cut $160 million from that request—money for construction—when it passed the 2008 defense-authorization bill by 397-27 in May.
The Senate Armed Services Committee proposed cutting $85 million from the program and imposing limits on some of the other funding. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill later this month. Then House-Senate negotiators will have to reconcile the two versions.
Democrats who support the cuts feel confident that they've stopped the missile-defense program in Europe for next year.
"You can't deploy something that hasn't even been developed, much less operationally tested," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Armed Services Committee. It's still not clear that the system is needed or can proceed, he said.
Nelson also said the United States still had time to test and negotiate because Iran was at least eight years from developing a long-range missile. Iran also would have to go through the difficult process of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to mount it on the missile.
Rep. Terry Everett of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said that like many Republicans he opposed any cuts in missile defense.
He said he hoped that House and Senate negotiators would strike the right balance between long-term and near-term defense investments when they worked out the final bill.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said other leaders of NATO nations wanted any missile-defense system to be part of a plan that NATO worked out, rather than U.S. agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic. Agreements with the two countries haven't been finalized.
Tauscher said she had told Bush administration officials to take NATO's concerns seriously. "Either they don't share the same perception of the threat, or they don't think you have a solution to the threat, or they don't think you're serious about working with them," she said.
Tauscher also said Bush should have tried a year ago to reassure Putin and offer to explain more about the plan. Russia's saber rattling doesn't worry Americans much, but does shake up people in eastern European countries that once were under the Soviet Union, she said.