WASHINGTON — A bitter disagreement about the pending U.S.-Soviet arms treaty is erupting between Administration officials and congressional Republicans as the White House prepares for next month's summit conference with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The dispute was reflected in an angry White House confrontation Tuesday between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) over the medium-range missile treaty, which is viewed by the Administration as a badly needed foreign policy triumph.
Shultz and others have been pressing congressional Republicans to openly embrace the pact and rally support for its confirmation. But Dole and some other Republicans, wary of a backlash from hard-line conservative opponents, have been reluctant to do so until its details are known.
Tempers reached such a pitch Tuesday at a meeting of President Reagan and Shultz with GOP congressional leaders that Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska had to step in, in front of Reagan, and calm Dole and Shultz, who were arguing heatedly, sources said Wednesday.
The dispute in the White House Cabinet Room illustrates what a sensitive issue the anticipated weapons reduction accord is for Republicans, even though its chances for ratification are considered good. The agreement is expected to be signed at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting, scheduled to begin Dec. 7.
A source close to the Republican leadership, who is familiar with Dole's version of the confrontation, said that Shultz was "kind of on a high horse, arrogantly lecturing senators," and told the participants in the meeting, "I'm for the treaty, so everyone here should be for the treaty."
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, reported that Shultz said he did not understand why Republicans could not support the treaty when even liberal Democrats were behind it. That, Dole interrupted, is precisely why the Republicans want to see the pact before agreeing to vote for it when it reaches the Senate floor.
The source quoted Dole as saying, "We're not going to be a rubber stamp for anybody." Republicans want to go over the treaty with "a fine-toothed comb," he reportedly said.
Although Stevens managed to calm the two men, the source said that strong differences remain.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, with a sarcastic edge to his voice, said Wednesday that "it was a gentle exchange. . . . It was government at its healthiest."
Fitzwater, denying that any clash took place, told reporters that Shultz "simply pointed out that he was concerned by opposition from members of Congress and felt this was a worthy treaty that should be supported."
"Sen. Dole simply pointed out that the senators have a role in ratifying the treaty and that they would assume those responsibilities in a very serious way," Fitzwater said.
But another White House official said, "It was a lot more acrimonious than Marlin portrayed it."
'Can't Understand Roadblock'
He said that Shultz "sees the light at the end of the tunnel" after years of arms control negotiations "and can't understand the roadblock" that may be thrown up by those considered to be the President's allies in the Senate.
"You assume when you work as a team that it would go through, smooth as butter, and it doesn't work that way with the Senate," the official said, reflecting a recognition within the White House, if not by Shultz, that the Administration is already encountering difficulties even among Republican senators.
That view was echoed by a senior member of Dole's presidential campaign staff, who said that "anyone who would rush to judgment on a treaty of this significance is committing an even more serious error than those who did that on the (Robert H.) Bork nomination" to the Supreme Court, which was defeated in an embarrassing setback to the Administration.
And, evidently, the concerns about congressional opposition are justified. Dole is not alone in his effort to counter pressure from the Administration on the anticipated treaty.
Final Details Unavailable
Among GOP allies of the President, Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming has said that it is too early to voice support for the pact because final details have not yet been nailed down. On the Democratic side, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia has made it clear that he wants a full opportunity to study the treaty before indicating any position.
Reagan, meanwhile, said in a television speech beamed to Europe by the U.S. Information Agency that, despite the proposed treaty's provision for removing some nuclear missiles from Europe, the United States' commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to European security "remains unshakable."
"Over 300,000 American servicemen with you on the Continent and our steadfast nuclear guarantee underscore this pledge," Reagan said. "Those who worry that we will somehow drift apart or that deterrence has been weakened are mistaken on both counts."
Europeans strongly support treaty, a British official says. Page 40.