The Bush administration has to repair its relations with Republican critics of its budget policy and choke off a growing threat of "isolationist sentiment" in the party in preparation for the 1992 campaign, Vice President Quayle says.

In a White House interview Friday, just before he left on an official visit to Japan, Quayle acknowledged that "fissures" exist within the GOP on both fiscal and foreign policy, but he said they are not irreparable "mega-problems" as yet.

Anticipating attacks from a more aggressive Democratic majority in Congress, the vice president said Republicans "must do a better job" of blunting Democratic calls to tax the rich.

But he said his party has the political high ground on what he called the job-quota issue. If the Democrats reject President Bush's compromise proposals and carry through on their promise to repass the civil rights bill that Bush vetoed last month, they will live to regret it, he said.

"The American people do not want a quota bill . . . and when the president says it's a quota bill, it's a quota bill, notwithstanding what Ted {Sen. Edward M.} Kennedy {D-Mass.} may say about it," Quayle declared. "The American people will believe the president, and they will not believe Ted Kennedy on this issue."

In a wide-ranging discussion of the political fallout from the midterm election, in which he carried the bulk of the campaigning chores for Republican candidates, Quayle made public the White House's growing concern over conservative criticism of the president's Persian Gulf policy.

"There is a strain of isolationist sentiment in our party," he said. "The McGovern-Buchanan axis is there." Quayle seemed to link Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative critic many in the administration believe may challenge Bush for renomination in 1992, with former senator George S. McGovern, the Democrats' 1972 presidential nominee and critic of the Vietnam War. Buchanan has led a conservative outcry against the massive deployment of U.S. forces against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

"We have to deal with it, just as the Democrats have to deal with their isolationists," Quayle said. "It is still a very small but vocal minority, but we have got to be sure that it does not get out of control."

"It's something that concerns me," he added, "because it has at times a kind of populist demagoguery to it."

Quayle was not specific on how he thought the Buchanan dissent should be handled, but as a man with many personal and political friendships in the GOP's right wing, the vice president has busied himself with the ongoing dispute over tax policy that erupted in the final weeks before the election.

He said he had met with officials at the conservative Heritage Foundation Thursday to discuss their complaint that Bush had undercut the strategy of the midterm campaign by agreeing to a deficit-cutting package that included large tax increases.

Quayle said, "I disagree that the administration {position} was an actual liability" to Republican candidates. He said the conservative critics make "hypothetical" arguments that Republican turnout was depressed by Bush's abandoning his no-new-taxes pledge, but said he had challenged them to show him specific races "where we were ahead {before the budget summit agreement} and ended up behind, and they can't do that."

Citing Senate challenges in such states as Nebraska, Illinois, Michigan and Rhode Island, Quayle said, "We never got within single digits {of the Democratic incumbent} before, during or after the budget debacle. . . . So I have a very difficult time swallowing the idea that if the budget thing had been handled differently, it could have made a difference to those races."

He said he was less certain of the evidence in House races. But referring to the squeaker reelection of House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who broke with the president and strongly opposed the budget compromise, Quayle said, "Look at Newt. He went from 60 percent {in 1988} to 51 percent, and no one was more opposed to the budget agreement than he was."

While rejecting their argument, Quayle made it clear that he is eager to mend fences with the conservatives on Capitol Hill who voted against the budget agreement. When asked about reports of an election-night debate at the vice presidential residence between senior administration and Cabinet officials who urged retribution and discipline against the dissenting House Republicans and those who called for a policy of forgive-and-forget, Quayle declined direct comment, but put himself wholly in the second camp.

"You don't go out and gain support by overtly threatening a dissenter or saying, 'I'm going to discipline this one or that one.' You get people together, talk to them and bring them on board," Quayle said. "In politics, if you even hint at being vindictive, you're going to lose. . . . The president is not about to do that, to put together any kind of list or treat people differently because they opposed him on the budget."

As for Democratic plans to revive proposals for a surtax on some undefined category of wealthy individuals, Quayle acknowledged that "we've failed" to expose what he called the fallacies in that approach. "The so-called rich are paying a greater percent of the taxes than in the past," he said. "Unfortunately, we did not do a good job of explaining that."

But he said the Democrats probably can be counted on to mishandle the issue by overreaching. "Their definition of rich comes down to include darn near everybody," he said.

Finally, the vice president, who campaigned strongly for term limits for members of Congress, said, "I wouldn't be at all surprised" to see a call for such a constitutional amendment included in the administration's program for 1991. He said he supported the proposal on its merits but also suggested it might provide leverage on incumbents to reduce their own perquisites or to change campaign-finance laws that now give officeholders a huge advantage over their challengers.

"There really isn't a choice when it comes to voting for these congressmen. . . . There is not a credible alternative. The challengers can't get money, and they can't get publicity. Democracy means choice, so this is a fundamental problem," he said. "Term limits are a drastic remedy, but tell me something else that will make it competitive and that can be passed. The American people are being denied a basic right."