The Soviet Union proposed a "draft treaty" last week at the Geneva negotiations on medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe that was based on an offer announced publicly last December by Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov, according to Reagan administration officials.
It was quickly rejected by the United States, according to one official, who said it contains only the "bare essentials" of an agreement and "makes no mention of verification."
The official said the U.S. delegation in Geneva will concentrate its initial efforts in the next few weeks on "discussing verification procedures, definitions and data exchanges."
However, at the same time, a major behind-the-scenes bureaucratic argument is expected about whether a U.S. counterproposal could and should be hammered out here, accepted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and approved by President Reagan before national elections in West Germany on March 6.
An issue in those elections is NATO's plan to deploy new U.S. Pershing II and cruise nuclear missiles in western Europe beginning in December if no agreement is reached with the Soviets.
Chances for a counterproposal seem slim, some officials said, because of strong opposition to such a move in the administration, particularly at the Defense Department.
The Soviet proposal, a Pentagon official said, "is not seen as a serious response" to the administration's so-called "zero-zero option" for dismantling of all of the approximately 600 Soviet medium-range missiles aimed at western Europe in return for cancellation of deployment of 108 Pershing II and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles.
"We will have to be much closer to fall" and the deployment date for U.S. missiles, the Pentagon official said, "before serious Soviet negotiations will begin."
The Soviets, this official said, have not come up with a "serious response because they are not at all persuaded that U.S. deployment will take place" given the situation in western Europe.
Not everyone involved in the government's arms control policy making agrees with that position.
At the State Department, at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and in the U.S. negotiating team in Geneva, some officials believe a modification now in the "zero option" approach could defuse the missile issue as a key factor in the West German elections.
They want to propose an interim agreement on equal numbers of missiles on both sides at "the lowest possible levels" before eventually going to zero on both sides. This was the original position adopted by the NATO allies in December, 1979, when they first approved deployment of the new U.S. missiles if agreement could not be achieved with the Soviets.
The upcoming internal administration debate promises a replay of infighting that preceded President Reagan's initial adoption of the zero option in November, 1981.
At that time, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger led the fight for the zero option position against then-secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr., who wanted the United States to limit deployment of new missiles in Europe to a number equal to that of the new Soviet SS20 missiles deployed.
At that time, Pentagon officials argued against the "lowest possible number" approach, saying it gave the Soviets the opportunity to set the U.S. weaponry level and represented the old approach to arms control--not reducing weapons but agreeing to limit the number of new ones built.
But the most telling argument with Reagan, sources said, was the simplicity of the idea that both sides would have zero.
Opponents of zero option argued that the Soviets would never accept it because it would require them to dismantle an entire family of weapons, including more than 300 new SS20s, in return for not deploying weapons not built. In addition, zero-option opponents said that once adopted, the position would be hard to abandon.
The position taken in the upcoming internal administration debate by Vice President Bush, based on his conversation with allied leaders during his current European tour, could be a major factor, officials said. According to U.S. officials in Europe, at least some allied leaders favor seeking an interim "lowest possible number" agreement.
Under the Soviet proposal tabled last week, according to officials, the Warsaw Pact and NATO would be permitted 300 medium-range land- and sea-based nuclear missile or bomber systems in Europe west of the Ural Mountains. Within that total would be a sublimit on each side of as many as 162 missiles.
The Soviets also would retain 100 SS20s based east of the Urals, aimed at Chinese and other targets and supposedly incapable of hitting European targets. Unclear in the draft as presented, officials said, is whether about 80 SS20s and nearly 300 older SS4s and SS5s would be destroyed or simply moved to positions east of the Urals.
Counted against the NATO missile sublimit would be the 162 British and French land- and sub-launched missile systems, a situation that would bar deployment of any of the new U.S. missiles.