Vice President Bush announced yesterday that he will meet with Soviet negotiators next week at the nuclear arms reduction talks in Geneva to convey "the kind of conviction we have in really wanting to achieve an equitable, balanced and stable" arms control agreement.
The vice president's remarks at a news conference appeared to be part of a broadening campaign to convince the Soviets to advance more acceptable proposals which then could provide the grounds for American movement toward a compromise.
Bush, who leaves Sunday for a 12-day trip to seven western European countries, told reporters yesterday that he is "not carrying new proposals" to the allies for reaching an accord other than President Reagan's "zero-zero" plan, announced more than a year ago.
This would be the first time that an official of higher rank than the U.S. negotiators had called on the Soviet delegates to the arms talks, which are aimed at reducing the number of medium-range missiles in Europe.
"This is not a negotiating mission," he said, but a mission of "discussions and consultations."
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Senate confirmation of Kenneth L. Adelman, Reagan's choice to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, ran into trouble yesterday, with senators from both parties indicating that it might be a means of examining the administration's arms control policies.
Bush's trip has considerable political importance because it is an opportunity for the Reagan administration to demonstrate its good faith on arms control. It also could be of substantial importance to Bush as a possible future GOP presidential candidate.
Under the "zero-zero" plan, the NATO alliance would forgo deployment of 572 new U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles, scheduled to begin in Europe in December if the Soviets agree to dismantle all 600 or so medium-range missiles that they already have in the field.
Rather, Bush said, his main public purpose is to try to convince the people of western Europe that Reagan "is serious" about arms control. The main private mission is to consult with allied leaders to get their "innermost feelings" on how best to achieve agreement and to report those views back to Reagan.
If some or all of those allied leaders appeal in private for a modification of the officially rigid U.S. stance, that also could be a factor leading to compromise.
While Bush reiterated Reagan's view that Moscow must come up with more equitable proposals to produce progress at the talks, the vice president also strongly indicated that he will seek to enlist allied leaders in the effort "to encourage the Soviets to come up with a reasonable proposal such as the one we have tabled."
Asked if Washington would negotiate any proposal other than zero-zero, such as one that called for low and equal numbers of missiles on both sides, Bush said the United States is "open-minded. Bring on some other proposal and let's discuss it."
"Our negotiators are there," he said, "all ears, waiting to hear some reasonable position from which to negotiate."
While this reflected some potential flexibility in the official U.S. stance, Bush quickly added that whatever may be discussed will be done "without departing from the zero option."
The goal, he said, is to "banish" this entire class of nuclear-tipped missiles.
Even this remark, however, may also suggest willingness to consider a formula for moving toward a compromise solution favored by some European officials.
This could involve an interim or first-stage agreement between the two super powers that might place some limits on these weapons and which then could be described as a step toward total elimination under continuing arms talks. Bush said talks could go on after the new U.S. deployment begins, but it is not clear that Moscow would agree to that.
Bush's trip to West Germany, West Berlin, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, the Vatican, France, England and Switzerland comes at an extremely delicate time in the relationship between Washington, its allies and Moscow.
The looming confrontation over missile deployment is one of the most severe challenges ever faced by the alliance, with big political stakes for many governments, and there is relatively little time left to cope with it.
Although allied leaders have remained officially in support of Reagan's stance, there is growing sentiment within those governments and populations for compromise.
The situation is especially crucial and delicate in West Germany, where national elections are scheduled on March 6.
If there is to be a shift away from the zero-zero plan and toward something that gives the public greater confidence that an agreement will be reached, it could come if West Germany's conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl tells Bush privately that such a change is necessary to help him win reelection. Kohl has strongly supported the U.S. position thus far.
But any movement at this point also could create unpredictable shifts in West German political attitudes in which Kohl might then be viewed as having been on the wrong side of the issue all along. This could benefit his Social Democratic Party opponents, who have been more conciliatory toward Soviet proposals.
So far, there is no indication in Washington that any shift is planned before the German elections. But this could change if Kohl asks for it and Reagan agrees, and that is why the Bush visit is so potentially important.
The Soviet Union, arguing that there already is parity in nuclear forces in Europe, has rejected the zero-zero plan. Washington has termed unacceptable a Soviet proposal, in return for no U.S. deployment, to reduce their missiles in the European portions of the Soviet Union to 162, the same number as in the French and British nuclear arsenals.
It has not been made clear what Moscow would do with the rest of its missiles.
Bush said the French and British missiles, which are viewed as sovereign, strategic deterrent forces not controlled by NATO, do not belong in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) talks, which deal with tactical weapons.
Reflecting an allied view that Moscow, under any circumstances, should not be allowed a monoply on these weapons, Bush said that what would be "worthwhile" bargaining over would be "something that does reflect balance and equality" in forces. The Soviets, he said, have failed to make such an offer.
These remarks also suggest that a compromise may be found in which both sides have some new missiles. Such a possible compromise was worked out informally by U.S. and Soviet negotiators last July but disapproved in Moscow and, ultimately, in Washington.
While Bush said he knows "how our president feels" about wanting an arms agreement, he said he is "not sure our friends in Europe all understand." So he said he wants "to make that just as clear as I can during this trip."
Bush repeatedly emphasized that the zero-zero plan is a "moral . . . sensible . . . sound" proposal that "for a while captured the imagination of the general public" when it was first offered by Reagan in November, 1981.
"It still has the imagination and support of the leaders of NATO," Bush said, indirectly acknowledging that popular support is eroding and that Washington may be losing a public relations battle with Moscow for European opinion.
Bush also acknowledged the issue at the heart of the problem. "Their problem," he said of the matter that most concerns allied leaders, "is can you actually achieve" the zero option. Critics have contended that the U.S. plan is so objectionable to Moscow that there never will be an agreement unless the United States modifies its stance.