CLARIFICATION: A headline yesterday stated that Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) had threatened to block the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty over a legal dispute on Senate treaty approval powers. Biden has proposed making implementation of the INF treaty conditional on Reagan administration acceptance of his position in the dispute. (Published 2/12/88)

An attempt by Secretary of State George P. Shultz to settle a bitter legal dispute over the U.S.-Soviet treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) won a positive response yesterday from two key Senate Democrats, but angered a third.

Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said a Shultz letter Tuesday provided "important assurances" easing their concerns about the administration's claim that Senate testimony during treaty ratification hearings may not be legally binding.

In a brief statement from Europe, they called off a threatened delay in INF-related hearings before Nunn's committee, while leaving open the possibility of unspecified action in the dispute later.

But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), second ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, strongly attacked Shultz's letter and renewed his pledge to try blocking INF Treaty implementation unless the administration more fully repudiates its claim that executive branch testimony may not be legally binding.

Biden said "the letter fails to address the essential issue" of the administration's insistence that since 1985 it can adopt, without Senate approval, a treaty interpretation different from that presented by executive branch officials.

Shultz's letter, more detailed and forthcoming than a previous letter to Byrd and Nunn, promised that INF Treaty testimony from the executive branch would be "authoritative" and that the administration "will in no way depart from the {meaning} of the INF Treaty as we are presenting it to the Senate."

But State Department and congressional officials agreed that Shultz did not fully embrace the Democrats' position.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday that the letter "speaks to the testimony to be given on the INF Treaty in this administration before the Senate." Fitzwater emphasized that the letter "does not address future or past" treaties, and said the administration still supports the "broad" reading of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

Sens. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), strong backers of the "broad" ABM interpretation, also said yesterday that Shultz's letter did not contradict or undercut the legal basis of the interpretation.

Biden said the administration's promise not to change the meaning of the INF Treaty in its remaining 11 months in office was "the equivalent of saying that it reserves the right to behave unconstitutionally in principle but promises not to in practice."

Nunn and Byrd have not said whether they support Biden's proposal for a formal treaty "condition." Nunn said in Paris yesterday that their reaction to Shultz's letter was based on a quick review, and that they may seek further clarification or attach "some kind of reservation" to ensure the letter is legally binding.