President Carter, admitting that the Panama Canal treaties are in jeopardy, said yesterday that he and Panama's ruler, Gen. Omar Torrijos, will try to clear up disputes about the meaning of the agreements when they meet here today.
"I think clarification is crucial," the President told a news conference on the eve of hastily arranged visit by Torrijos to discuss the Senate's growing doubts about approving the treaties.
Although several senators have suggested that the disputed parts of the agreements be renegotiated, Carter insisted, "I don't believe there is any need to amend the treaty language."
But he conceded: "I think it would be very difficult to ger ratification of the treaties if there is any doubt that Gen. Torrijos and I, the Panamanian people and the United States citizens, agree on what the canal treaties mean."
At issue are differing U.S. and Panamanian interpretations of whether the treaties give the United States future rights to intervene militarily against treats to the canal and to send U.S. warship crossing the canal to "the head of the line" in time of war.
Administration officials contend that these rights are secured by language in the treaties pledging the United States and panama "to maintain the regime of neutrality" to the canal and granting "expeditious passage" to U.S. warships.
However, these interpretations have been publicly disputed by some officials of the Torrijos government, which is seeking approval of the pacts by the Panamian people in a plebiscite scheduled for Oct. 23.
Torrijos domestic critics have charged that the provisions covering intervention and preferential treatment for U.S. ships were concessions unacceptable to the Panamian people.
But, as Panamanian officials have sought to counter these charges with denials, they also have triggered growing concern in the United States about whether the treaties really safeguard U.S. rights after Panama assumes control of the canal.
On Tuesday a group of senators met with Carter and informed him that, unless the contradictions are resolved, there is little chance of the treaties' winning the 67 votes - two-thirds of the Senate - required for their approval.
At his news conference, Carter acknowledged the pitfalls by noting: "Both Gen. Torrijos and I are faced with a difficult political problem; as he described it accurately, to sell the same product intwo diferent markets."
At his view, the President said, there really is no conflict between the U.S. and Panamanian positions. Both countries, he said, "are determined that the canal will be open, neutral anf free for use" andthat the U.S. right "to take action to keep the canal open" does not mean a U.S. right to intervene in Panama's internal affairs.
But, Carter added, "the language didn't go into that much detail" and it therefore has become necessary that he and Torrijos "have a common agreement what the treaty means." He said they "may or may not issue some clarifying statement" after their meeting.
Torrijos, who arrived in Washington yesterday is en route home from a visit to Europe and the Middle East. Carter said he had not talked with Torrijos personally in recent days but had sent him a letter asking for a White House meeting.
Panamanian sources said, though, that Torrijos had been contacted in London by the White House following Carter's meeting Tuesday with the Senate leaders and had been informed that a meeting to hammer out a clarification was imperative.
His acceptance, the sources said, was a sign of Panama's concern about the situation in the U.S. Senate. [WORD ILLEGEBLE] marks a major about-face by Torrijos, who said after the treaty-signing ceremonies in Washington on Sept. 7 that he considered the negotiations closed and did not intend to engage in any further discussion about their meaning.
In a related development yesterday, several U.S. treaty opponents - four senators, a member of the House and the attorneys general of four states - joined to ask the Supreme Court to rule on whether the treaties are constituional.
Their suit contends that approval by the Senate alone is insufficient since the Constitution requires action by both housed of Congress to dispose of U.S. property.
Among those bringing the suit are Sen s. Jesse A. Helms (R-S.C.), Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), and James A. McClure (R-Idaho), Rep. Daniel J. Flood (D-Pa,)and the states of Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana and Nebraska.