The Soviets have wounded but not killed the pending strategic arms limitation treaty by secretly stationing combat troops in Cuba, senators representing the breadth of the political spectrum said yesterday.
The first casualty, these senators agreed, is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee timetable that calls for reporting SALT II to the floor by Oct. 1.
President Carter will need more time than that, they predicted, to make enough progress on the Soviet troop problem to make it safe to submit the treaty for its crucial vote on approval.
Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said last night that the heavy load of legislation, including budget resolutions and energy bills, means that SALT II will have to wait in line for a floor vote until at least late October or early November. He said the Soviet troop presence had clouded the future of the treaty but it was too early to gauge how much delay the new issue would cause or how serious a threat it was to approval.
Other casualties, senators said, include the Carter administration's effort to keep all U.S. Soviet issues from running together like a madras shirt -- the "linkage" issue.
Some senators who did not like the arms control treaty even before they learned about the Russian presence in Cuba said that if Carter fails to get a commitment from Moscow to remove the combat forces, SALT II will be defeated.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) said yesterday, "I'll move to recommit the treaty" if Carter cannot get such a commitment. He had planned simply to offer amendments on the floor.
While it all sounds like bad news for Carter and SALT II backers, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) said the disclosure about Soviet troops in Cuba is good news for candidates like Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), fighting for reelection in conservative states.
"Everybody who's running now has a natural out," Goldwater said with a broad smile, because they can use the Soviet troops as an excuse to vote against SALT II.
"I know the West," Goldwater said."The people in the West, with the exception of California, in the solid West are violently opposed to SALT II."
Church and other SALT II backers have got that message, Goldwater said, and now the Soviet troops issue "gives them something to hide behind" if they decide to back away from the treaty. "I'd like to hvae something like that when I get in trouble," he said.
Another republican John Tower of Texas, noted that Church on Wednesday said there is "no likelihood whatever" that SALT II will be approved as long as those Soviet combat troops remain in Cuba.
"He's apparently been in Idaho lately," Tower quipped.
"Going back home is a wonderful tonic," agreed Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (DS.C.).
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a strong opponent of SALT II, complainted that he feels like "I'm watching a three-act play which smacks of Keystone Kopism."
In the first act, Helms said, the State Department denied the assertions by Sen. Richard B. Stone (D-Fla.) that there were Soviet combat troops in Cuba. In the second act, Helms continued, the department confirmed Stone's assertions, making a hero out of him and giving Church an excuse to cool off a little on SALT II.
"All this is good for Stone and for Church; they're both up for reelection. I hate to be suspicious, but maybe the third act will be President Carter standing up and announcing what good guys the Russians are because they're leaving Cuba."
However the drama plays out, said liberal Sen. Jacob K. Javits of New York, ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, the Soviet troop presence has "had a profound effect" and delayed the SALT ratification process.
Despite "all the hyperbole" coming out of the Senate these days, he continued, nobdoy knows how long a delay the troop problem will cause because nobody knows how it will turn out.
In purely logical terms, Javits said, SALT II should be considered on its merit without regard to Soviet troops in Cuba or elsewhere. But this will not be the case, he said, because of the "atmosphere" the troops presence has created in the Senate.
Asked to define linkage, Javits said it means "action on Proposition A has a connection to Proposition B." In that sense, what the Soviets do about their troops, Proposition A, will affect what the Senate will do on Proposition B, the SALT II accord.
As a backer of SALT II, Javits said he would like to see the troops viewed as a "roadblock" rather than make their removal "a condition precedent" for treaty approval.
Sen. Sam Nunn (DGa.), a moderate whose support for SALT II is fervently sought by the administration, said the Soviets' secret stationing of combat troops in Cuba "compels the administration to go back to linkage" by considering military, political and economic dealings with the Soviet Union as a piece rather than in isolation.
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who termed himself uncommitted on SALT II, said "linkage" will influence his vote.
Removal of the Soviet troops "would not assure my vote" for the treaty, he said, but failure to get such a commitment "would be sufficient basis for me to vote against SALT II."
Sen. Bob Dole, a conservative Republican from Kansas, yesterday sought to codify linkage by proposing a Senate resolution to halt consideration of SALT II until President Carter either reported that Soviet combat troops had been removed from Cuba or stated that any Soviet troops there posed no threat to the foreign policy interests of the United States and its Latin American allies.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) refused to take an immediate vote on the Dole resolution, stating: "There's plenty of time to cut off the head of the chicken while the water is still boiling."