President Carter has indicated that he will not seek sharply increased defense spending "just to get" Senate votes for the SALT II pact.
Responding to questions Friday from out-of-town editors, Carter said he would provide "adequate defense recommendations to the Congress" but would go no further.
Senate SALT critics have demanded larger defense budgets as a condition of their support for the pact, which needs a two-thirds majority for approval.
"If I try to escalate defense requests substantially above what they are needed just to get Senate votes, which I would not do, the Congress would not approve them," Carter said, according to a White House transcript released yesterday. Congress has a history of cutting administration recommendations on defense anyway, he said.
However, Carter's remarks appeared to leave a slight margin within which he could redefine defense budget needs to allow for some kind of increase.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) last week promised his influential vote for SALT II on condition that the defense budget rise by about $7 billion over increases already planned by the administration. He wants, he told Armed Services Committee hearings, real increases of 4 to 5 percent after inflation in the proposed $122.7 billion defense allocation for fiscal 1980, and he wants the increases to continue indefinitely.
Nunn's vote on the treaty is considered critical to approval from a number of Senate moderates whose worries on SALT correspond to his concerns on the steady growth of Soviet military power.
Carter aides indicated after Nunn's remarks that they might be willing to negotiate, but thought Nunn's terms a bit high. In defending SALT II to the editors, Carter said: "No matter what level of defense expenditures we might have -$140 billion, $160 billion, $180 billion - it doesn't matter; under any level of expenditure for defense purposes within reason, we are better off with the SALT treaty than without it."
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va) said in another context yesterday that Nunn's conditions for treaty passage were "a plus on behalf of the treaty" because they helped focus the nation's attention on the need for increased military funding. "The country's going to have to spend more money for defense whether we have SALT II or not," Byrd told reporters.
The president, in other remarks to the visiting editors, said the nation can have a crash program for energy production and still manage to honor its environmental protection laws.
He added he feels so strongly about the energy situation that he personally wrote his recent televised speech on the subject.
"The Sunday evening speech was made literally from the bottom of my heart," he said. "As a matter of fact, I only practiced that speech twice because I wrote it. My wife and several other people helped me with the basic structure of the speech, but I did it myself."
The speech was widely hailed as projecting a new, more forceful image of Carter as he called for a nationwide effort to meet the energy crisis.
To do that, he told the editors, there is no need to reduce air, water or wildlife protection standards. The President's Commission on Coal last week reported that coal use can be doubled by 1985, he said, but "the basic premise for this recommendation was that we would not lower air quality standards. So I can't see us changing the basic laws that protect the quality of life of the American people."
On other matters, Carter said that Pope John Paul II will visit here this fall "in a private fashion...not on a political mission but on one involving religion, morals and ethics." He predicted that the pope would receive "an overwhelmingly friendly welcome."