The Senate, trying to pass a Pentagon budget bill that has become a vehicle for anti-drug efforts, Tuesday overwhemingly voted to urge changes in U.S. policy toward Panama and its indicted leader, Manuel Antonio Noriega.
First, the chamber voted 95-0 for a proposal by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., providing that no U.S. aid be sent to Panama until Noriega leaves power and until President Reagan certifies that no Soviet or Cuban troops are in the Central American nation.The amendment was aimed at Noriega, who has been indicted on U.S. drug trafficking charges. The Reagan administration is negotiating with him to drop the charges if he agrees to leave power, a plan that has drawn intense criticism in Congress.
The Senate later passed by a vote of 86-10 a resolution, offered by Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, that put the Senate on record in opposition to any deal in which U.S. drug trafficking charges would be dropped.
The decisions on the Panama-related measures were scheduled as part of the Senate's effort to finally approve the huge bill.
"We should not dismiss these indictments . . . we'd be making a mistake," Dole said Tuesday. His amendment is a non-binding, "sense of the Senate" resolution. He said the White House opposes it.
He said dropping the charges against Noriega would "send the wrong signal in the war on drugs."
Sen. Pete Wilson, R-Calif., said dropping the indictments "is a very dangerous signal
to send . . . a deal that would allow this man to escape justice is a deal that stinks."
Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., said the U.S. efforts to remove Noriega "was not merely ineffective. I believe they work against the return of democracy to Panama. The indictments should be left in place."
Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said "The administration has painted itself and our nation in the corner on this matter."
Also unresolved was a separate proposal by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., which would let courts impose the death penalty on drug dealers convicted of killing people.
"The American people are entitled to this protection," said D'Amato. "I think we have to find a clearer message for those who deal in drugs. . . . The death-dealing drug lords fear no one."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said D'Amato's proposal had nothing specifically to do with the Pentagon budget and should be considered in another forum. Senate rules do not require that amendments be germane.
Levin also opposed the amendment because he said studies have shown that people sometimes are wrongly convicted of crimes.
"The main reason I'm opposed to capital punishment is that you cannot correct your mistakes," Levin said. "Time and time again, we've found that we've convicted the wrong man."
The overall bill authorizes Pentagon spending of $299.5 billion in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Senate passage would send it to a House-Senate conference committee to be reconciled with the House version of the Pentagon budget.