Just as U.S.-Soviet arms control talks are showing signs of progress, congressional Democrats are pressing ahead with legislation that Administration supporters charge would undermine President Reagan's bargaining position.
Republicans are urging Democratic leaders not to tie the President's hands a month before Secretary of State George P. Shultz's scheduled trip to Moscow, apparently to arrange another summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Reagan's supporters are particularly worried that the Democratic-controlled Congress will enact measures forcing the President to honor the unratified 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and to abide by an interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that would bar testing of the President's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," space-based missile defense system.
Exceeded SALT II Limit
Despite congressional opposition, the President last year deployed the 131st B-52 bomber equipped to carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, thereby exceeding the SALT II overall limit of 1,320 launchers. Now he is threatening to move to a broad interpretation of the ABM treaty so that testing of "Star Wars" components may be started.
His supporters contend that it was Reagan's stand on these issues that persuaded the Soviets to get serious about arms control.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a member of a congressional delegation that met with U.S. and Soviet negotiators in Geneva two weeks ago, said the group came away believing that the President has an opportunity to negotiate not only the elimination of intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe but also perhaps a comprehensive arms control agreement. Gorbachev recently proposed eliminating intermediate-range U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons from Europe.
But Lugar emphasized that success could depend on a willingness in Congress not to interfere.
Calls for Solidarity
"This is a time we have to demonstrate solidarity, to create a bipartisan window of opportunity," Lugar said. "Members of both parties should hold their fire and see if we're going to have an agreement."
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), top-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he hopes House and Senate Democratic leaders will soon agree to discuss a compromise with the White House on U.S. compliance with SALT II and the ABM Treaty as well as other arms control issues.
"The President and his negotiators in Geneva have got to be given support of the Congress," Warner said. "We cannot disassociate the schedule in Geneva from the schedule in the Congress."
But congressional Democrats are not about to retreat to the sidelines. Although they are encouraged by signs of progress in U.S.-Soviet arms talks, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), a leading congressional advocate of arms control, said they are in no mood to compromise just because there may be another summit.
"There are always some meetings somewhere," he said. "Our patience is running out."
Cranston recalled that, just before the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Iceland last October, Democratic leaders agreed to a hastily arranged compromise involving arms control issues and weapons funding. But the Iceland meeting broke up over "Star Wars" without significant progress toward an arms control agreement.
In addition, Democrats insist the Administration itself has shown no willingness to compromise. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger is said to oppose a trade-off, discussed in the White House recently, under which the Administration would agree not to deploy "Star Wars" for 10 years in exchange for continued growth of the program's research budget.
Opposed by Wilson
Reagan also has received a letter from Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and other conservative GOP senators recommending against such a step.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has not been approached about a compromise, according to an aide. "We're waiting for the phone to ring," he said.
Perhaps the most obvious sign that Democrats are preparing for a showdown with Reagan was the recent 115-page report in which Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) blasted the Administration's plan to move to a broad interpretation of the ABM Treaty.
Nunn, who enjoys enormous credibility in Congress on these issues, argued that the Administration's position is not justified by the still-classified negotiating record, which he has read. It was a highly unusual stand for Nunn, a cautious, conservative Democrat who normally seeks compromise rather than confrontation with the President.
In this instance, he expressed no interest in discussing compromise. "I'm not promoting anything like that," Nunn said.
Sees Leverage in Congress
Nunn noted that the Democratic-controlled Congress has considerable leverage to force the President to abide by the narrow interpretation of the ABM Treaty. If the President refuses, he said, Congress later is likely to slash "Star Wars" funding to keep the program within the bounds of the limited interpretation and prevent the testing of anti-missile system components.
Conservative Republicans such as Wilson were furious over Nunn's remarks, which they viewed as the first step in a Democratic effort to kill the Strategic Defense Initiative. Wilson strongly supports the Administration's position that the ABM Treaty allows "Star Wars" testing.
Although Cranston and other Democratic leaders are committed to offering legislation that would bind Reagan's hands, Nunn himself has refrained from this step. He noted that the President has not yet officially adopted the broader interpretation of the ABM Treaty and held out hope that he could still be persuaded not to.
Will Offer Resolution
Cranston said the Democrats, to capitalize on the wide publicity received by Nunn's report, will soon introduce a non-binding resolution in the Senate calling on the President to abide by the narrow interpretation. Wilson, acknowledging that such a resolution could pass the Senate, said it would be dismissed by the White House as a "purely partisan piece of gamesmanship to usurp a function that is reserved for the President."
Democrats are taking a tougher stance on SALT II. Cranston said nearly half of the Senate's 100 members have agreed to co-sponsor binding legislation to force the President to abide by the treaty.
Although the Senate has previously passed non-binding measures calling for continued adherence to the treaty, there never has been enough support for a binding measure. Cranston said he felt certain that binding legislation would pass the Senate this year.
In the House, where arms control advocates have long had more influence than in the Senate, Democrats are planning to offer binding legislation that would force the President to abide by both SALT II and the narrow interpretation of the ABM Treaty.
In addition, they are preparing a measure calling on Reagan to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. All three are likely to be adopted.
Some Prefer Compromise
While Senate and House Democratic leaders are committed to confronting Reagan on arms control, some Democrats would still prefer compromise. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) on Thursday harshly criticized Nunn's narrow interpretation of the ABM Treaty and charged that the Georgia senator was "being used by those who want to kill" SDI.
Likewise, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), a member of the congressional observer group to Geneva, recently proposed that Congress promise an annual increase of as much as 15% in SDI funding in exchange for a commitment from the President that he would not deploy the system for 10 years. Administration officials rejected Gore's proposal during a White House meeting on March 11, according to Senate sources.
These sources said a compromise of the kind proposed by Gore is unlikely, at least for the next few months, because it would poison the relationship between newly appointed White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and Republican conservatives in Congress, who already view him with suspicion because of his moderate views.