The prospects for Senate approval of a strategic arms limitation treaty have been "complicated" by President Carter's remarks quoted in amagazine article, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd said yesterday.

The current issue of Atlantic reported Carter as saying he would observe the terms of an arms-control agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union even if the Senate did not approve a treaty -- provided the Russians also lived up to the terms of the treaty.

"I feel the article is unfortunate, that it confuses the issue and that it complicates the prospects of Senate approval," Byrd told reporters. "I am not saying it is fatal... (but) I think the president needs to clear the air himself."

Byrd said he conveyed those thoughts to Carter yesterday morning and that the president promised to prepare a statement clarifying the White House position.

A short statement issued later in the day by the White House repeated views expressed Friday by press secretary Jody Powell in responding to questions about the Atlantic article.

"The president expects that a verifiable agreement on strategic arms limitations which protects American strategic interests can be negotiated and will be ratified," the statement said.

"The president's position is that this agreement will be submitted for Senate ratification as a treaty. If the Soviet Union, in the absence of a SALT treaty, were to engage in a significant arms buildup, the president would, of course, match it appropriately.

"By the same token, it is the president's intention not to escalate the arms race unilaterally in the absence of a treaty, if comparable and verifiable restraint is shown by the Soviet Union."

Byrd also said that Carter reaffirmed to him in a conversation yesterday morning that a SALT II agreement will be sent to the Senate only as a treaty and not as an executive agreement, as had been contemplated at one time.

The Atlantic article by historian James MacGregor Burns reported that Carter would, on his authority as president, observe the terms of a SALT agreement if a treaty failed in the Senate.

Burns predicted that such an eventuality "would doubtless trigger one of the great constitutional debates -- and political confrontations -- of this era."

Defeat SALT II ranks high on the conservative agenda and a bruising fight for the two-thirds vote needed for passage is expected.

Byrd said he will remain neutral on a treaty until he knows its full details.