Top White House officials yesterday denied that Philip C. Habib's sudden resignation last week as President Reagan's special envoy to Central America reflected either a rift within the administration or a weakened U.S. commitment to achieving a negotiated settlement in the region.
"There are plenty of other people to pick up the negotiating track," Frank C. Carlucci, Reagan's national security adviser, said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press."
White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr., dismissing accounts that Habib's departure followed a disagreement between Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz, said the two are in "absolute accord" over the administration's negotiating strategy in Central America.
"I can simply tell you that there is no major misunderstanding . . . within the administration on the policy the president has pronounced," Baker said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
State Department and congressional sources said Habib resigned after the White House rejected his call for the United States to assume an immediate, high-level role in talks between Nicaragua and its neigbors.
Shultz had proposed that Habib travel to Central America to commit the United States to participation in regional peace talks, but Reagan overruled the secretary, the sources said.
In an interview Saturday with The Washington Post, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger said the resignation is likely to be interpreted as a sign that the administration is having "second thoughts" about negotiations and said the development is a setback for Shultz -- with whom he had not spoken.
"Suffice it to say that the president had other views about how the U.S. involvement in future negotiations should be conducted, and that the president and the secretary of state discussed those frankly, and they were in absolute accord when that meeting was over," Baker said.
Baker and Carlucci said the president remains committed to a two-track policy for achieving peace in Central America based on negotiations and on support for the contras fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Habib had accomplished his mission, "which was to get the Central Americans together to bring about a peace plan," Carlucci said.
Central American presidents presented a plan 10 days ago that calls for democratic reforms in Nicaragua, an end to U.S. support for the contras and a ceasefire.
However, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who also appeared on NBC, said Congress will view Habib's departure as "a step back from negotiations."