In an unusual public scolding, a high-level Reagan administration official told congressional sponsors of a nuclear freeze resolution yesterday that their "steady stream of negative resolutions...pulls the rug out from under the administration and makes it awfully difficult for us to achieve agreement" with the Soviets on arms control.
Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, said the Soviets would be "delighted" with a freeze. The freeze movement "is becoming a movement for unilateral disarmament, the kind I think would be dangerous and destabilizing," he added.
Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee reacted angrily.
Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.) called Perle's comments "irresponsible" and an "attempt to smear the grass-roots nuclear freeze movement" when "12 million Americans have voted for a bilateral, verifiable nuclear weapons freeze."
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) said Perle's testimony was "a rejection of the democratic process....You're arguing that when you've got a position we ought to support it and keep quiet."
The acrimonious hearing was the opening of what promises to be a heated partisan debate over arms control in the 98th Congress. Last year's freeze resolution, sponsored by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), lost 204 to 202 in August after lobbying by President Reagan and Vice President Bush switched several votes at the last minute.
This year, a similar resolution has garnered 178 co-sponsors. It is likely to reach the floor in mid-March, a week after a lobbying effort by the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign is expected to attract up to 10,000 advocates to Washington.
The administration plans to resist fiercely any effort to alter its stance on arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. Reagan has endorsed an alternative resolution sponsored by Rep. William S. Broomfield (R-Mich.) that would support the administration's efforts to negotiate weapons reductions before imposing a freeze.
Freeze advocates are hoping for an early victory in the House, where 26 new Democratic members have strengthened their hand, so that they can concentrate on the Republican-controlled Senate. For the 1984 elections, they point to the early endorsement of a freeze by Democratic presidential candidates as a measure of their strength.
Markey's freeze resolution declares that "the United States and the Soviet Union should pursue an immediate and complete halt to the nuclear arms race; decide when and how to achieve a mutual verifiable freeze on the testing, production, and further deployment of nuclear warheads, missiles, and other delivery systems...and pursue major, mutual and verifiable reductions" in nuclear weapons after a freeze.
Perle's testimony, which questioned whether a freeze would be "mutual" or "unilateral," is "a red herring," Markey said. Perle said he drew the inference that freeze advocates "insisted on unilateral action by the United States" from newspaper accounts of the freeze movement's convention in St. Louis this month.
The St. Louis convention's resolution "urges Congress to suspend funding for the testing, production and deployment of new nuclear weapons systems and calls upon the Soviet Union to suspend funding of testing, deployment and production," according to Randall Forsberg, who chairs the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.
Forsberg said that the resolution was merely "a statement of principle" and that the specific legislative initiatives the group endorses are bilateral.
Zablocki, chairman of Foreign Affairs, rebuked Perle for implying that his resolution involved a unilateral weapons freeze. "My resolution calls for a negotiated mutual and verifiable freeze," the lawmaker said. "No element of the Reagan defense program is stopped by the resolution."
The freeze argument turns on whether Congress believes, as Reagan says he does, that the United States is militarily at a disadvantage with the Soviet Union or whether it believes that the forces are roughly equal, as freeze advocates contend.
In an interview after the hearing, Perle acknowledged that the U.S. forces are not inferior from "a defensive point of view. We do have elements of survivability and invulnerability to attack....We'd be better off with their offense and our defense."