White House officials said yesterday that if the Soviet Union shows appropriate restraint, President Carter intends to abide by the terms of a new strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) even if the treaty is rejected by the Senate.

Commenting on a portion of a report in the March issue of the Atlantic magazine by political scientist James MacGregor Burns, White House press secretary Jody Powell said it was "only logical" to assume that Carter would hold down the size of the U.S. nuclear force if the Soviet Union did the same.

But he stressed that the president's policy will hinge on Soviet actions. If the Senate rejected the treaty and the Soviets continued a military buildup, Powell said, "we would match it."

"If the Soviet Union chose to exercise restraint," he continued, "we would not take action here that would make that restraint impossible.... Any restraint here would have to match restraint by the Soviets."

Powell, however, denied another assertion in the Burns article -- that Carter intends to submit the treaty as an "executive agreement," requiring only majority vote approval by the House and Senate, if the treaty fails to receive the necessany two thirds vote approval by the Senate.

Reporting on a December interview he had with president, Burns wrote:

"In discussing this [SALT] issue he became more determined, even more solemn, than I had ever seen him. He took pains to leave no doubt in my took pains to leave no doubt in my mind about his present intention. While he plans to recognize the Senate's full role in treaty-making, if a SALT agreement is blocked or emasculated in the upper chamber, he will ask both House and Senate for a simple majority vote of approval; and if this approval is not forthcoming, he observe the terms of a SALT agreement as long as he is president."

Burns did not specifically report that Carter conditioned his future policy on Soviet actions, and quoted the president as saying, to emphasize the importance of the issue, "Our relations with Russia affect everything we do in every part of the world."

Obtaining a SALT II accord with the Soviets has been one of Carter's top priorities since taking office, and gaining Senate approval of such an accord is his foremost foreign policy goal for this year.

U.S. and Soviet negotiators reportedly have agreed on all the major issues, and final agreement has been expected early this year. That forecast, however, may have been set back by the growing tension between the Soviet Union and its communist rival, the People's Republic of China, over the fighting in Southeast Asia.

Last year, the White House deliberately encouraged speculation that a new SALT accord might be submitted to Congress as an executive agreement rather than as a treaty. But that idea provoked heavy congressional opposition, and Carter later ruled it out.

Adminstration officials have been at work for weeks on plans to gain Senate approval of the treaty when it is ready for submission.