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Clinton is clinging to the folly of more nuclear testing

In the riveting exercise of "bringing up Bill," as congressional Democrats see it, they are getting nowhere in their attempts to bring him back from the brink of nuclear testing.

Signs are that President Clinton is going to go over the cliff in this gravest national security choice. He is caught between old friends, like Sen. Dale Bumpers, a fellow Arkansan who preceded him as governor, and the new friends he hopes to make in the military.

Many Democrats think it's plumb crazy to test new weapons at this moment, even though Congress passed a compromise measure to allow a total of 15 additional tests before we settle down to a comprehensive test ban in 1996.

The French and British, inveterate testers, don't want to be the first to break the moratorium, and they are urging him on. So is the Department of Defense, the nuclear laboratories, which with unemployment threatening want to build tiny bombs for tiny countries. They insist on tests for safety and reliability.

The president is apparently taking their arguments to heart. He sent his national security adviser, Anthony Lake, up to Capitol Hill to test the waters. Lake sat down with three Democrats closely associated with anti-nuclear activity: Rep. Mike Kopetski of Oregon, author of last year's bill for ending tests; Rep. Ron Dellums of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, a lifelong dove; and Rep. Martin Sabo of Minnesota, who says that nuclear testing is "bad international policy, bad economic policy, and bad environmental policy."

They gave Lake an earful. They told him, in polite terms, they would beat the president's brains out on a vote to resume testing.

"People in the House feel very strongly on this issue," is how Sabo put it.

Kopetski told Lake there could be 247 votes against resuming.

The Senate is a different story, but even there Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says, "There is absolutely no pressure to test more." Harkin wrote a letter to the president urging him to keep in mind the end of the Cold War, the end of the Soviet Union, and the urgency of setting an example to the world of non-proliferation.

Twenty-two Senate colleagues, including a solitary Republican, James Jeffords of Vermont, signed the letter.

A conspicuous Republican advocate of arms control, Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon was not on the letter. Neither was Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, a leader in efforts to stop proliferation. It is assumed that they feel bound to the agreement reached last year about pre-comprehensive ban testing.

Bumpers was a signer. He is adamant about testing on technical and political grounds. Testing for safety can be done by computer, he claims. As for reliability, he thinks it may be "stabilizing if people developing bombs can't be sure they would work."

Politically, U.S. resumption of testing would "put an unbearable burden on Boris Yeltsin in his contest with the hard-liners" and would lose the United States the moral high ground with Third World countries we try to convince of the irrelevance of nuclear weapons.

All make the argument that the considerable feat of coaxing North Korea to return to the fold of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty should be savored and built on and held up to the world as an instance of the mature deportment we are hoping to introduce to countries hell-bent on making bombs. North Korea has yet to allow inspection, but the mere fact of dialogue was encouraging.

What baffles Clinton's would-be congressional tutors is that the president, who is starved for victories, should court a collision with an articulate and forceful wing of his party.

Moratorium seekers had high hopes for June 10, the 30th anniversary of President John Kennedy's declaration of the atmospheric test ban. A ceremony was held at American University, where he made his celebrated speech. Kopetski, Paul Warnke, Daniel Ellsberg and others spoke. They mentioned the courage it took for Kennedy to step back from the arms race at the height of the Cold War. All understood that Kennedy is Clinton's idol, and they hoped he might wish to emulate him in Kennedy's most statesmanlike stance. But so far Clinton has resisted.

Jeffords offers this sympathetic speculation: "A new president can get nervous about turning down military requests. Particularly him _ with the non-service and the trouble about gays in the military. He may be overly protective of their desires."

Bumpers thinks a decision to go forward would "come back to haunt him _ the world is sick to death of nuclear weapons."

Universal Press Syndicate