White House and congressional negotiators are nearing a compromise that could have the effect of stalling any effort by the Reagan administration to abandon the traditional interpretation of the ABM treaty or exceed the limits on deployments of strategic weapons in the unratified SALT II treaty, sources on Capitol Hill said yesterday.
The effort is aimed at avoiding a veto confrontation over arms control legislation during next month's summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the sources said.
While a final agreement has not been reached, congressional leaders expressed guarded optimism that the strategy, under which both sides could claim at least partial victory, would lead to approval of a fiscal 1988 defense authorization bill.
Reagan had previously threatened to veto the defense bill if the two arms-control provisions, which were approved separately by both houses, are included in the final measure Congress sends to the White House.
As explained by one participant, the talks centered on whether it was possible to justify the limits on nuclear weapons and missile-defense testing on grounds of budgetary constraint or timing requirements, and avoid addressing the more contentious issues of compliance with or interpretation of the ABM and SALT treaties.
The treaty questions would be left open, both for strategic-arms negotiations with the Soviets and for future action by the administration and Congress if the U.S.-Soviet talks fail.
As a result, "the administration's hands would not be tied" in bargaining with the Soviets because Reagan would still have the option of pursuing testing of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) under a broadened ABM interpretation or nuclear weapons in excess of SALT II limits at any time in the future, the source said.
But, for the time being, the administration would stick to its earlier timetable which anticipates that during the current fiscal year all SDI testing would be consistent with the traditional, or narrow, interpretation of the ABM treaty, the source indicated.
Also, he said, there are budgetary and other constraints that could hold up deployment of strategic weapons which would put the U.S. in further violation of categorical limits in the SALT II pact, which the administration has stopped observing.
In meetings over the past week with national security adviser Frank C. Carlucci, senior members of the House and Senate armed services committees came up with an "approach" or "general outline" that seemed to overcome many previous White House objections, sources said.
But details remain to be worked out, and there appeared to be some concern about whether the approach would clear the remaining hurdles at the White House and in Congress.
Negotiators consulted yesterday and Monday with House and Senate leaders and were expecting further talks with the White House. One participant said they hoped to have an agreement soon but cautioned that there was no deadline and no assurance of an accord. It was not clear whether the spending bill would contain the ABM and SALT II provisions if a compromise is reached with the White House.
Without a compromise, there is a strong possibility that the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress could be at loggerheads over the arms-control provisions just as Gorbachev is arriving for his summit meeting with Reagan Dec. 7.
Congressional leaders have acknowledged they lack the two-thirds majority in both houses that would be required to override a presidential veto but have vowed to include the arms-control provisions in an omnibus spending bill for the government if they are not resolved in the defense measure. A stopgap spending bill currently under consideration would require passage of the omnibus measure by Dec. 16.