Fresh bipartisan criticism surfaced on both sides of Capitol Hill yesterday over President Reagan's announcement that the United States will end compliance with the unratified SALT II treaty later this year.
At a White House meeting with other Republican congressional leaders, Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) said he voiced his "extreme distress" over the decision, warning Reagan that if the United States scraps the treaty, "they the Soviets are going to be way ahead."
While Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) backed the president, GOP moderates such as Sens. David F. Durenberger of Minnesota and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut said they were concerned about a reversal of the administration's five-year policy of adhering to the terms of the unratified arms accord with the Soviets.
By renouncing the treaty now, Weicker said, "we will lose an enormous opportunity at a time when the Soviets are at the short end of world opinion" because of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) predicted that there will be "a major effort" in the Senate to force Reagan to change his mind before the end of the year, when the administration says this country will exceed SALT II limits.
"I cannot see one single thing that benefits the U.S., militarily or any other way, from this decision," Bumpers said. "Talk about shooting yourself in the foot."
Bumpers said he expected to meet later this week with Chafee and Sens. John Heinz (R-Pa.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) to discuss strategy for countering the administration's decision.
"My sense is that even people who are lukewarm on the issue really don't want to break out of this treaty," he said. "I can tell you there is genuine concern."
The adverse reaction was even stronger in the Democratic-controlled House, where Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) were described as committed to a "high priority" effort to force continued U.S. compliance with the SALT II limits.
Congressional sources said the House Democratic leadership had not decided on a course of action, but that the most likely approach would be to try to amend the Defense Department authorization bill to prohibit the use of funds for weapons that would exceed SALT II limits. Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.) introduced legislation yesterday to hold funding for weapons deployment and maintenance within the SALT II limits.
Fascell said in a statement that by abandoning SALT II the United States "would heat up the arms race and give unprecedented opportunities to the Soviets to substantially increase their nuclear threat against the United States."
Amid what House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) described as "pretty well united" House Democratic opposition to scrapping the treaty, there was uncertainty over the administration's ultimate intentions regarding SALT. Several lawmakers suggested that Reagan's decision might be a negotiating ploy to force a more forthcoming Soviet position at the Geneva arms control talks.
"Reagan has left himself too many ways out," a House Democratic aide said in urging a cautious approach to the controversy.
The administration announced last week that the United States will dismantle two Poseidon submarines to remain within the SALT II limits for now, but that the United States is prepared to exceed the limits later this year when more B52 bombers are equipped with air-launched cruise missiles.
The administration has left open the possibility of continued compliance with SALT II. White House spokesman Edward P. Djerejian said yesterday there remained "a possibility" that the United States could remain within the SALT ceiling of 1,200 strategic missile launchers even after more cruise missiles are deployed on B52s if the president decides to dismantle other Poseidon submarines.
Speaking to reporters after the White House meeting, Dole and Chafee also agreed that continued compliance was possible depending on Soviet behavior.
At the meeting, Chafee, a former secretary of the Navy, disputed Reagan's contention that SALT II had outlived its usefulness. He contended that major provisions of the unratified treaty had been observed by the Soviets and said that the unratified arms control agreement had the support of the American people, according to a White House official present at the meeting.
The official said that Reagan replied that the Soviets had repeatedly violated the treaty and other international agreements stretching back to the World War II agreement among U.S., British and Soviet leaders at Yalta.
When Chafee told the president that he would not find the Senate with him on this issue, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) disagreed.
State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb, responding to criticisms of U.S. allies about the decision, issued a statement saying that "NATO solidarity remains strong" despite allied misgivings about Reagan's statement.