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SENATE OKS CURB ON UNDERGROUND N-TESTS, TOTAL BAN IN '96

The Senate on Friday challenged the Bush administration's policy on nuclear weapons testing, endorsing strict curbs on the underground explosions and a total ban beginning in 1996.

On a 55-40 vote, lawmakers added the restrictions to a $274 billion Pentagon budget bill for the year beginning Oct. 1. Differences with a House version remain to be resolved before the measure can be sent to President Bush.Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Jake Garn voted against the restrictions.

The action highlighted a sharp difference between Bush and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who told an audience of workers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque Friday that he supports a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons testing.

Even as the Senate acted, the Energy Department detonated its fifth test of the year at the Nevada test site. With a yield of less than 20 kilotons, the blast was designed to test reliability of equipment in a nuclear environment.

In August, administration officials said they would recommend a veto of any bill containing the restrictions because they would compromise the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

But opponents of testing, led by Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., said continued testing makes little sense in a world rushing to reduce nuclear arsenals and where nuclear tensions have abated with the disappearance of the Soviet Union.

"The American public has told us loud and clear that they want testing to end," despite the administration's contention that it is needed to guarantee the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. arsenal, Hatfield said.

"You can't talk about real serious arms control until you control the technology," he said.

The plan, also sponsored by Sens. James Exon, D-Neb., and George Mitchell, D-Maine, would place a nine-month moratorium on nuclear weapons tests beginning next month, put strict limits on subsequent tests, then impose a total ban beginning Oct. 1, 1996. The ban would be waived if Russia resumes testing after that date.

In other action, opponents of the B-2 stealth bomber fell short in their effort to further cut the program as the Senate ratified plans to build a fleet of 20 of the radar-evading aircraft.