Senate minority leader Howard Baker met with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow yesterday and later told a news conference the Soviets "badly want" a new strategic arms (SALT) accord with the United States.
Baker said he came away from the meeting with Brezhnev and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko believing the Soviets would not let Washington's opening of full diplomatic relations with China stand in the way of the SALT pact.
"It is our conclusion," Baker said, "that we will see conclusion of the treaty fairly soon, notwithstanding developments in China and other developments."
State Department officials said however they saw no evidence at the current SALT negotiations in Geneva that the Soviet's eagerness for a pact extended to changing their negotiating stance.
"They are not not throwing away their positions," one senior official said.
But U.S. officials said that the two sides are "close to reaching an agreement on the outstanding secondary issues which we hope will be resolved within a month."
Gromyko and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resolved most major issues during three days of talks at Geneva last month, then jointly voiced the hope that the remaining problems would be resolved at the ongoing Geneva talks.
Baker, leading a group of five other Republican senators, went to Moscow on a four day visit to discuss the SALT pact in what has become a sort of congressional tradition.
According to the Soviet version of the session, Brezhnev reaffirmed Moscow's desire to reach a speedy conclusion of the SALT pact "in the interest of improving overall U.S. Soviet relations." He criticized some unnamed persons in the United States for trying to "interfere in the favorable development" of these ties.
Baker, after the meeting, said it "appears the Soviet Union does not fully understand the role of the Senate debate" on ratification of the pact. The misunderstanding, he indicated, is that such debate "is not an antagonistic approach but a realistic approach."
"My overall view is that President Brezhnev and the Soviet government badly want this treaty," Baker said.
Sen. S.I. Hayakawa of California came away from the meeting puzzled by "the fact that both Brezhnev and other Soviet people are terribly concerned about the U.S. recognition of the People's Republic (of China)."
"It seems to scare them a lot and concern them a lot and they continue to ask" why the decision was taken now rather than at some other time, he said.
Both sides appear to be posturing a bit. Brezhnev was quoted by Baker as having warned the senators that if the SALT pact fails to get Senate approval, "it will be a very serious setback, more dangerous than a return to the Cold War as it was in the 1950s."
Baker added, "I think this statement should be taken with a grain of salt."
The U.S. visitors -- which also included John Tower of Texas, Jake Garn of Utah, John Danforth of Missouri and Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming -- told reporters that the 72-year-old Soviet leader appeared alert, fit and in generally good health.
Brezhnev, once a chain smoker, had given up cigarettes, Baker said, but he asked visitors who smoke to sit close to him so he could enjoy the tobacco aroma.
Later in the day, nine Jewish activists ignored government hotel managers and spent 90 minutes meeting with the senators to discuss emigration and the fate of imprisoned Soviet dissidents. One of them was the brother of jailed dissident Anatoly Shcharansky.
The senators, who said they are visiting Moscow to collect information for the forthcoming debate on the SALT II pact, are scheduled to meet other senior Soviet officials before departing for home today.
In Paris, French President Giscard d'Estaing voiced hopes that there will be a "speedy conclusion" of the SALT II pact. He made the remark upon return from a vacation following the Guadeloupe summit with President Carter.