The leadership of the Republican Party, accusing the Carter administration of ignoring "the aggressiveness of the Soviet Union," declared today that it will make the coming strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) debate the occasion for questioning the "total military and foreign policy relationship" between the United States and Russia.
Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.), who helped engineer passage of the resolution at a party conference here, said it is a signal to the administration and the Soviets that "linkage is a fact of life."
"It is," Baker said, "at direct variance with the urging of the Carter administration that the treaty be considered on the basis of the language contained in it alone, while ignoring the Russians in Cuba or the Cubans in Africa."
The resolution was adopted with only three audible "no" votes by a meeting of 95 elected GOP officials, including 26 of the 41 Republican senators. While the weekend Tidewater Conference has no official status, it is a clear indication that the dominant Republican sentiment is skeptical of the SALT II agreement, now reportedly nearing conclusion. Carter has made approval of SALT his major foreign policy objective in the current Congress.
Baker, who incurred the displeasure of many conservatives in his party by supporting Carter on the Panama Canal treaties last year, said "the resolution does not commit any of us to vote for or against STLT."
But the minority leader, who last week announced formation of an "exploratory committee" for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination, said his meeting last month with Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev convinced him "the Soviet Union thinks it will get an advantage if we consider the treaty without linkage... and I find that unacceptable."
Baker's position was supported by another unannounced presidential hopeful, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). Dole said today's action "puts a little pressure on Carter" to bargain harder with the Soviets on the terms of the treaty, which Carter has. predicted will be signed in the near future.
Among the 26 Republican senators here, the only votes against the resolution came from Sens. John H. Chafee (R.I.) and Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.). The third dissenting vote came from Rep. Millicent Fenwick (N.J.), who said it was "madness" to condition approval of the threaty on Soviet behavior in other parts of the world.
Sens. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) and Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.) indicated likely support for SALT II, but Percy at one point said the Carter administration would be "out of its mind" if it did not insist that the Soviets stop "creating chaos in other parts of the world," such as Iran.
Most of those who joined the 90-minute debate wanted to go much farther than Baker in laying down strict conditions for approving a SALT agreement. Republican Sens. Willian Armstrong (Colo.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Harrison Schmitt (N.M.), Alan K. Simpson (Wyo.) and Malcolm Wallop (Wyo.) collaborated on language that would "link" STLT to the condition of U.S. defense force, a U.S.-Soviet conventional arms agreement for Europe, Russian observance of the Helsinki Accords and guarantees of verification.
Baker incorporated the verification requirement in his resolution and then backed a move by Sen. John G. Tower(Tex.) to kill the other specific "linkage" language in favor of Baker's general reference to "the total military and foreign policy relationship" of the superpowers.
The minority leader told his colleagues that Republicans were "taking a polictical risk" in insisting that SALT be considered in the broader context of U.S.-Soviet relationships, because public opinion polls show the treaty is popular and the GOP could be accused of injecting partisanship into foreign policy.
"But," he said, "I have no reservation in saying this should be an item of political debate" as the 1980 election approaches.
Baker said the resolution should be kept in "the least strident" language possible to avoid an apperance of challenging the president's authority while the negotiations with Russia are continuing.
But he did not oppose the successful move by some of the hard-ling senators to add a prefatory clause saying that "the Carter administration is responsible for and presiding over the decay of American influence and the decline of American military power." The resolution also asserted the administration "has been consistently insensitive to the aggressiveness of the Soviet Union and it clients and inaccurate in forecasting Soviet behavior."
The Tidewater Conference, held for the first time last year under the leadership of Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, is open to all Republicans in Congress and statewide elective office.
This year's turnout, more than double the size of last year's, included the 26 senators, 50 House members, six governors and 13 other state officials.
On Sunday, the conferees are scheduled to discuss the proposed constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.