There is little chance for a U.S.-Soviet arms control agreement in the foreseeable future, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said yesterday after a confidential and unusually gloomy briefing from the top U.S. arms negotiators.
Lawmakers disagreed about who is to blame, with Republicans tending to hold the Soviets responsible and Democrats allotting a large share of the responsibility to what they see as Reagan administration mishandling.
Senators who spoke to reporters, however, agreed that prospects seem poor for early progress in the Geneva negotiations on medium-range missiles in Europe. Their reports contrasted with the administration's official "hope" that the Soviets will bargain seriously on the basis of President Reagan's recent "interim" stand.
Another feature of the closed meeting, according to participants, was a new explanation by retired Gen. Edward L. Rowny, the chief strategic arms negotiator, of a controversial memorandum that he handed to Kenneth L. Adelman, the administration's embattled nominee for director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
After publication of reports about the memo, which sharply criticized other members of his negotiating team, Rowny claimed that it did not represent his views but was only "informal talking points" prepared by staff aides.
Senators said Rowny went further yesterday, telling the committee that he had not read the document at the time he delivered it to Adelman.
This explanation appears to conflict with Adelman's private description of the memo as "Ed Rowny's confidential views on people." For this reason, it may further complicate the task of obtaining confirmation of Adelman in a Senate floor debate scheduled to begin Monday.
After a partisan wrangle, Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee turned back a Democratic request that Rowny's latest explanation be made public.
On the broader issue, Committee Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) told reporters that "it does not appear that in the foreseeable future there is a chance" for an agreement with the Soviets to limit medium-range missiles in Europe.
"I believe the Soviet Union intends to stonewall the situation," he said after a briefing by Paul Nitze, chief U.S. negotiator in the Euromissile talks.
"I believe we have bungled and blown the opportunity to have significant arms control," Minority Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said.
Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.) told reporters, "My impression is we are not making progress." Later, he called the administration's approach "ham-handed" and said the briefing was "the most distressing session" on arms control he has attended in his four years in the Senate.
Another participant, who asked not to be quoted by name, said Nitze saw "just a small hope" for progress in the negotiations during the next six months. Nitze reportedly described his most recent negotiating session with his Soviet counterpart as the most difficult since their talks began more than a year ago.
Rowny was quoted by a participant as saying he looks to the Euromissile negotiations to provide a breakthrough in talks on reduction of strategic armaments.
Last December, Rowny was much more optimistic in public, telling a television interviewer, "I think the odds are probably 50-50" for a strategic arms agreement in 1983.
The consensus among senators, however, was that there is now little likelihood that any U.S.-Soviet agreement could head off the scheduled deployment in December of U.S. Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe.
In a related development, the arms control agency released a report on worldwide arms transfers and military spending in the 1971-1980 decade.
The report said the Soviet Union was the world's leading arms merchant during the period, accounting for 33.7 percent of worldwide sales, with the United States close behind with 32.4 percent.
The United States led in sales during the first half of the decade, according to the report, with Moscow pulling ahead after the Carter administration adopted limits on U.S. arms exports.
The report said that in 1980, total military expenditures of NATO nations exceeded total expenditures of the Warsaw Pact countries.
However, the Soviet Union was estimated to have by far the largest expenditures of any single nation, well ahead of those of the United States.