With Chinese Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping's visit behind them, senior officials of the Carter administration have turned their attention to the anticipated political struggle over a new strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) with the Soviet Union.
Tomorrow afternoon, top-level officials of all interested government agencies will gather around the conference table in the White House situation room to report to Hamilton Jordan, President Carter's senior aide, on their preparations for the SALT fight. Jordan is running the "principals only" -- that is, no aides or substitutes -- task force that will manage SALT tactics for the president.
Next weekend Carter will make a major address on SALT and defense policy at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Aides say this will be one of many presidential pronouncements on the arms agreement to be made in the months ahead.
All that is mission to begin the ratification fight in earnest, officials acknowledge, is an agreement with the Soviets. Perhaps in reaction to the Teng visit here, Soviet negotiators recently have been moving slowly. The U.S. side hopes for answers from Moscow in the near future to the latest American proposals for completing a new agreement.
Senior White House officials -- who volunteered to discuss their SALT plans with a reporter last week -- remain confident that an agreement will be signed this spring and debated in the Senate this summer.
These officials dismiss rumors that they might withhold a new agreement until a majority of senators appeared favorably disposed toward it. "We'll send it up right away and take our chances," one authoritative official said. "There's no other way to do it."
Members of the small group of aides closest to Carter discuss SALT Ii/ with a combination of fatalism and combativeness. Yes, they acknowledge, the first vote counts in the Senate will show them no better than even with opponents and the largest number of senators being undecided. Yes, this will be a fierce political battle. But, they add, they are convinced the best arguments are theirs to make, and that they can achieve two- thirds support in the Senate necessary to approve the treaty.
The key question, one of Carter's intimates said last week, will be this: "Are we better off with this agreement, or is there some other circumstance in which we would be better off?" The onus will be on SALT's opponents to describe the combination of policies that would make America more secure by rejecting the treaty than by accepting it, this official said.
"Individual senators won" be able to get up and say, "If I had been the president negotiating this agreement I would have insisted on this change...'" the same official said. The question before the Senate, he added, will be to reject SALT II and take the consequences or to accept it.
Some SALT opponents have discussed having amendments or "reservations" to the treaty that would make it more attractive. Administration officials say any substantive changes would be rejected by the Soviets, thus killing the agreement.
Carter's aides point to other grounds for their optimism. One they note is the debate this year on the defense budget, in which the president will be defending his proposed increases in spending against dovisn critics. "It will be hard for Republicans to be arguing at the same time that this administration is weak on fense," one White House aide said.
These officials are also confident that Defense Secretary Harold Brown -- to date largely a silent partner in the public SALT debate -- will prove to be an articulate and persuasive advocate for the treaty. They argue that Brown has impeccable credentials, broad knowledge of the issues and credibility borne of his restarint in not speaking out thus far.
Administration officials point repeatedly to public opinion polls that show overwhelming popular support for a SALT agreement. Unlike the Panama Canal treaties, they say, this pact will enjoy public support that can be exploited to pressure certain senators.
Carter will cast the SALT debate in terms of the national interest and the policies of four successive administrations, his aides say. Republican efforts to make it a partisan debate will leave them looking petty and perhaps foolish, Carter aides predict.
White House officials assert that the president has been at his very best in recent foreign policy briefings for members of Congress at which he has argued emotionally for SALT II. Several aides told with satisfaction the story of Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), a moderate still undecided on SALT, who appealed to the president at one briefing not to put senators in the impossible position of having to decide between a less-than-perfect SALT agreement and a renewal of the arms race with the Soviet Union.
In fact that is the choice, administration officials argue, and the possibility of a renewed arms race is exactly what they hope will persuade two-thirds of the Senate to endorse their SALT II agreement.