In a vitriolic, four-hour hearing before a House Armed Services subcommittee yesterday, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard N. Perle said "either the Congress will stand with the administration . . . or the Congress will stand with the Soviets" over President Reagan's decision to abandon the limits of the unratified SALT II strategic arms limitation treaty.
Perle, the administration's top arms control expert, was particularly caustic in deriding a bill introduced by Rep. Norman C. Dicks (D-Wash.) that would block spending for U.S. nuclear weapons whose manufacture would exceed the SALT II limits. Perle said the measure supports the Soviets, harms arms control prospects and impinges on presidential and senatorial powers by using the budget to ratify SALT II, whose limitations have been observed by the two superpowers although the treaty was never approved by the Senate after being signed in 1979.
As Dicks reddened in anger, Perle said he would "certify to Norm Dicks' integrity and patriotism" and that his statement was not "in any way impugning the patriotism of those who disagree" with the administration's decision.
But the assistant secretary added, "There is a real question of whether the Congress of the United States will align itself with the administration or with the Soviets and that is a strategic reality."
Rep. Nicholas Mavroulas (D-Mass.) accused Perle of doing "a disservice to the Congress when you talk that way."
Undeterred, Perle said that "in the real political world" Congress would have to consider "how Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev read the news" of legislation to inhibit the president's decision.
When Dicks' turn came he lashed out at Perle, saying he had led the administration into emphasizing Soviet violations "so you can walk away from" the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and SALT II, and possibly undercut another superpower summit.
"I think it's the Defense Department that is out of step," Dicks said, "because it doesn't want arms control and has not from the very start." He said Perle was "the architect of that policy."
In response to the charge that Dicks was undermining the administration's treaty-making powers, the congressman said Perle had "a lot of audacity to talk about the legislative and executive branches" and that "no one had done more to undermine President Carter" than Perle, who was an aide to the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), when the SALT II negotiations were under way.
Perle replied that there was "a fundamental difference" between his opposing a treaty before it was approved and Dicks "proposing to circumvent by statute" Reagan's recent decision, which was intended to signal U.S. resolve to the Soviet Union.
Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) later took up the battle by telling Perle that a character in George Orwell's novel, "1984," whose job it was to rewrite history, was "a piker beside you." He chided Perle for arguing that even without SALT II limits the Soviets would have dismantled older missiles as new ones became operational.
The Reagan administration "will achieve nothing in arms control and damage national security," Downey added. "There is a new leadership in Moscow, but to this administration Joseph Stalin is still alive."
Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) opened the session of the defense policy subcommittee by noting that Perle was "an old friend and sparring partner" and then ribbing him by saying he didn't know "a man who has a more devious legislative mind."
In their exchanges, the two defined the basic differences between supporters and critics of the president's SALT II decision.
Perle said the "political consequences are profound" while the "military consequences are rather minor."
"What continuing with the treaty put at risk was our credibility" after Reagan said he wanted the Soviets to stop violating the SALT II provisions, he added.
The president's decision, Perle said, will end up "eliciting the kind of respect in Moscow that is essential for successful conduct of affairs between us and the Soviets."
Aspin responded that under SALT II the Soviets had dismantled almost 10 times the number of missiles dismantled by the United States and thus the agreement was "something we shouldn't be throwing away willy-nilly."
The treaty, Aspin said, put "fairly significant restraints on the Soviets" and that he was "worried" that the Soviets will now go on a weapons-building spree.
Perle responded, "I don't think the Soviets are particularly nice guys, but they make rational decisions on their forces" and said that he did not think they would vastly expand them after the U.S. SALT II decision.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of senators who support SALT II held a news conference to air their hope that Reagan will change his mind about the treaty. Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) recalled that "the president has come through all the time" in the past to stay within the treaty limits although "it's been a bit like the Perils of Pauline."
In a commencement address yesterday at New York University, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said Reagan's action on SALT II meant "the administration has taken its foot off the brakes of nuclear arms deployment and is about to press down on the accelerator of nuclear arms production."
O'Neill also said that "abandonment of the SALT II limitations is just a prelude to abrogation of" the ABM treaty, which he said some have termed "one of the most successful arms control agreements" ever.
In a debate yesterday with Paul C. Warnke, the Carter administration's director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), Kenneth L. Adelman, the agency's current director, said the Soviets had violated "not peripheral parts of the SALT agreement, but its main elements."
He cited the Soviet SS25 mobile missile, which the administration said is a clear violation to the SALT II limit of only one new missile per side. Warnke said the U.S. Midgetman missile, which is under development, would be a second U.S. missile if goes into production -- joining the MX.