WASHINGTON — President Reagan is "perfectly capable of walking away" from a U.S.-Soviet accord scrapping each side's ground-launched medium-range missiles if negotiators fail to win detailed assurances of Soviet compliance before the planned Dec. 7 summit, White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker said Sunday.
"The President has been absolutely determined to see that the essential elements . . . are agreed to in advance, and . . . verification is the No. 1 item on his list of requirements," said Baker, interviewed on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley." "But that is not done yet," he conceded.
Baker's comments appeared designed to reassure the Administration's hard-line critics, who are charging that the White House is making unwise concessions in order to conclude an arms deal during the forthcoming visit by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. He spoke as Secretary of State George P. Shultz flew toward Geneva to resolve 11th-hour disagreements over the accord, the intended centerpiece of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Washington.
Yielding on Demands
On Friday, an outgoing Administration arms control official fired a departing shot at the White House, charging that Washington is yielding on long-held demands in a "frenzy" to complete the negotiations on time. The arms control expert, Frank J. Gaffney Jr., was ousted as acting assistant secretary of defense in a high-level Pentagon shuffle.
Baker and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who was interviewed on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press," suggested that a proposal that Gorbachev address a joint session of Congress would be downgraded to a less formal meeting with lawmakers. Such a high-visibility appearance had been sought by Soviet officials but met strong opposition from congressional conservatives. The change appears to be another concession to the Administration's right-wing critics.
That position was echoed by Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Speaking to reporters en route to Geneva, Shultz tended to dismiss the significance of the revolt last week by congressional conservatives over the prospect of a formal address to Congress by the Soviet leader, and he indicated that less formal discussions between Gorbachev and members of Congress would suffice.
Both sides agree, Shultz said, that Gorbachev would have "conversational-type contact with the leadership of both houses of Congress" and with the leaders of key Senate committees who will consider ratification of the missile treaty once it is signed.
In addition, Gorbachev should have "the opportunity to put his views forward to members of Congress interested in hearing them," Shultz said.
A Search for Formats
The Administration and Soviet Ambassador Yuri V. Dubynin have been actively exploring formats for these exchanges with Congress, Shultz said. "We hope to get this basically nailed down" this week, he added.
As the White House braced for scattered opposition to the treaty in the Senate, Chief of Staff Baker defended the President's credentials as a tough negotiator who would hold out against a treaty with Moscow if such an accord would not serve U.S. interests.
"If any President of the United States was ever committed to a tough stance with the Soviet Union, an absolute assurance that we can verify a treaty . . . that . . . is Ronald Reagan," Baker said.
Baker also moved to answer conservatives' qualms about Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, who was confirmed in the post Friday and replaced Gaffney with Ronald F. Lehman, a moderate who is the Administration's chief strategic arms negotiator. "He's as tough as Cap Weinberger every way," said Baker of Carlucci, referring to Carlucci's predecessor, Caspar W. Weinberger.
Times staff writer Robert C. Toth in Geneva contributed to this story.