- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2001

Senate Democrats said Vice President Richard B. Cheney, in a private luncheon with them yesterday, qualified the administration's commitment to deploy a space-based missile-defense system.

"There was a change in emphasis," said Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "They're properly now focusing on the research and development, and focusing less on a commitment to deploy."

Senators who attended the luncheon said Mr. Cheney in general assured the group that the administration will not try to modify the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) to allow for new testing for at least one year. Mr. Cheney told them only if the testing is effective would the administration take steps to deploy a system.

In last year's campaign and since taking office, President Bush has said unequivocally that his administration will deploy a national missile-defense system and would pull out of the ABM Treaty if necessary.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld essentially echoed Mr. Cheney's comments yesterday in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"We need to be moving ahead with the research and development necessary to understand what we are going to be capable of doing to deploy a limited missile-defense system," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Mr. Cheney, in his first meeting with Senate Democrats as a group, discussed two issues almost exclusively missile defense and the administration's energy plans. Among those in attendance was Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent, whose decision to quit the GOP threw control of the chamber to the Democrats earlier this month.

Some Democrats, such as Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, said Mr. Cheney sounded "a little more conciliatory" on both energy and missile defense. But others said the vice president seemed intent mainly on not offending his audience.

"This is mush," Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said after the meeting. "It's grits without butter and salt and pepper a lot of verbiage that sort of doesn't rankle anyone or unnecessarily upset anyone in the immediate audience. He answered questions but, you know, it wasn't anything."

Mr. Levin said the administration's softening on deployment of a missile-defense system began last week with testimony before Congress by Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, the director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

"General Kadish has said nothing that he is going to recommend to the administration for the research-and-development phase of a national missile defense this year, in [fiscal]´02, will bump up against the ABM Treaty," Mr. Levin said. "That's the most important, significant piece of information I believe that has emerged in the last week."

Mr. Levin told the vice president that he "welcomed" the administration's change in emphasis. He said Mr. Cheney neither agreed with nor challenged Mr. Levin's view that the administration had altered its stance.

"It's no longer an unconditional commitment, as I see it, because they do not know that they can get any one of these systems to work," Mr. Levin said. "It's no longer quite as unconditional that we're going to deploy. It's now a little more qualified."

Said Mr. Schumer, "The big urging [by Democrats] on missile defense was to not deploy until we were sure it worked and certainly not to violate the treaty until we were sure it worked. He didn't brush that off the table."

Mr. Cheney left the luncheon without answering reporters' questions. His spokesman did not return phone calls yesterday.

On energy, the vice president told Democrats that the administration would "entertain" raising emission standards for sport utility vehicles and minivans, according to Mr. Schumer.

But other Democrats said Mr. Cheney made no commitment on the subject.

"He said Americans seem to like to drive these big vehicles," Mr. Harkin said. "I thought was an interesting statement 'Americans like driving these.´ So there's nothing much we can do about it."

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