The Senate continued generalized debate on the Panama Canal treaties yesterday, but no votes or other substantive action will be taken on the pacts until after the Feb. 10-20 congreassional recess.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.VA.), the majority leader, gave an uncharacteristically emotional speech in defense of the proposed treaties, arguing heatedly (though always politely) with several colleagues who disagreed with him.
Conservative opponents of the treaties repeatedly challenged the Carter administration's interpretations of its provisions, and several obliquely accused President Carter of lying to the public in his fireside chat last week.
This charge arose in connection with Carter's assertion that under the canal treaties, "any payments to Panama will come from tolls paid by shops which use the canal." Opponents say this is not precisely true.
Several senators raised questions yesterday about the financial implications of the treaties, and the State Department called a news conference to explain its views on that subject.
Opponents of the treaties cited testimony from officials of the existing Panama Canal Co. suggesting that under the new arrangements for managing the canal envisioned in the treaties, the canal might not generate enough income to meet obligations.
Opponents also noted a study by the Senate Armed Services Committee listing hunderds of millions of dollars in one-time costs to the United States as a result of transferring canal to Panamanian control by the year 2000.
The administration has not disputed the one-time cost projections, though it has noted that there would be expenses for the United States if the canal continued to operate as it has.
At yesterday's State Department briefing, two consultants hired by the department suggested that the canal can continue to make an adequate profit through 1983 if present tolls are raised by 19 to 27 percent.
Comptroller General Elmer B. Staats testified to the Armed Services Committee that at some later time -- perhaps in the 1990s -- canal revenues might fail to cover the payments to Panama called for under the treaties.
Staats recommended provisions be enacted in the implementing legislation that will have to follow the treaties, if they are ratified, to protect the U.S. Treasury in the event canal revenues fall in the future.
Authoritative administration sources have said they expect the Seneta to vote some kind of understanding of reservation limiting U.S. liability for any shortages in canal revenues during the life of the treaties (which run until 1999).
For the second day, the Senate's debate was broadcast by National Public Radio (WETA-FM). Commercial radio and television stations were allowed to take excepts from the soundtrack for rebroadcast.
One more day of general debate is scheduled today. After the Lincoln Day recess, the Senate is expected to begin considering the treaties article be article, with votes on the many amendments that senators have said they will introduce.