Senate and House negotiators agreed on a $288.3 billion military budget for 1991, but the chief bargainers for each chamber disagreed on what the deal means for the immediate future of the Stealth bomber.
Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday the authorization bill stops short of terminating the B-2 program but insisted it precludes production of the aircraft beyond the fleet of 15 previously approved by Congress.However, Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and John Warner, R-Va., the chairman and ranking Republican of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said any money left over from production of the first 15 bombers could go toward buying additional planes.
The Bush administration has sought approval to build two planes beyond the 15 already authorized.
The futuristic bomber is designed to evade enemy radar and carry a nuclear payload to its target. The Pentagon has envisioned eventually building a fleet of 75 planes at a projected cost of $65 billion.
Aspin, acknowledging the difference of interpretation over the compromise, said, "We understood that they (Senate negotiators) would describe it differently than we would describe it."
But Aspin said he was willing to accept some ambiguity for now in the belief that "my bargaining position will improve" when lawmakers are forced to wrestle with the fate of the plane again next year.
"Time is on our side," Aspin said, noting waning support in Congress for large strategic weapons programs since the Cold War ended and the threat of a superpower confrontation virtually disappeared.
"As far as we're concerned, the B-2 is dead," said Rep. Ron Dellums, D-Calif., predicting that he and other opponents of the bomber would ultimately prevail.
The bill authorizes $4.1 billion for the B-2 program in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 - $2.83 billion for procurement and $1.8 billion for research and development. Aspin said cost overruns would absorb most of the total, with none left for additional bombers.
Negotiators also agreed on $2.9 billion for the Strategic Defense Initiative. That is about $900 million less than approved last year.
They also passed a $680 million pool for research and development on competing intercontinental ballistic missile systems - the rail-based version of the MX and the mobile single-warhead Midgetman. The conferees agreed that no more than one mobile ICBM should be deployed.