Secretary of State George P. Shultz has strongly disagreed with a call from many congressional Democrats for the ouster of Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and said Abrams' removal would be a "severe" setback to the administration's Central American policy.

Shultz said in a written reply to a letter from 129 Democratic congressmen that it would be "grossly unfair for me to abandon him solely" because Abrams has become a "lightning rod" for criticism of the administration's support of the Nicaraguan contras.

Abrams has been widely attacked in Congress for misleading legislators about the administration's secret support of the contras during a two-year ban on U.S. military assistance.

Some congressional contra supporters have argued that Abrams' credibility problems will hinder the uphill fight the administration already faces in winning further congressional approval for contra aid. U.S. aid to the contras, $100 million this year, will run out in September.

In a letter to Rep. Jim Moody (D-Wis.), a co-organizer of the request for Abrams' ouster, Shultz specifically defended Abrams' failure to inform Congress that he solicited a $10 million donation for the contras from the sultan of Brunei. "We had given that country a pledge of absolute confidentiality and Mr. Abrams properly felt bound by that pledge," Shultz said.

Abrams, who had failed to reveal the donation in an appearance before the Senate intelligence committee last Nov. 25, testified about it when he reappeared before the panel a short time later. Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the intelligence panel, has said Abrams' admitted he had misled the panel only after intense prodding.

Moody said in an interview yesterday that he was "most upset" at Shultz's defense of Abrams on the Brunei disclosure. "Shultz is saying it's more important to keep faith with {Brunei} than with Congress," Moody said.

Moody also said criticism of Abrams extends well beyond the Brunei episode, which he said is only one example of Abrams' repeated misleading of Congress. "You had to be a Philadelphia lawyer in pinning down Mr. Abrams," Moody said. "In answering questions, he answered them in the most narrow, misleading way."

Shultz said Abrams is a "man of integrity" and is "making a major contribution" to the administration's current efforts to "fully and accurately" report to Congress on Central America.