WASHINGTON — The new U.S.-Soviet treaty banning ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear weapons will be formally submitted to the Senate today, with supporters confident it will be ratified but concerned that it may become a vehicle to block potential accord on deep reductions in intercontinental ballistic missiles.
With the Democratic leadership and the Reagan Administration allied, congressional observers last week predicted that the pact will easily receive the two-thirds majority necessary to put it into force.
Nevertheless, the White House, concerned over the possibility of "killer amendments," enlisted former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) as a special trouble-shooter. Tower is ex-chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and more recently a U.S. arms negotiator.
As two months of hearings and debate open before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Administration will send Secretary of State George P. Shultz to Capitol Hill as lead-off witness. And Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) and Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) will appear to stress their own endorsement of the accord signed last month by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
A chief concern of treaty supporters is that the agreement could be jeopardized by efforts to make its ratification conditional upon eliminating the imbalance in conventional forces in Europe.
Most analysts believe that the Soviet Union and its allies hold an advantage over the 16 North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations in most categories of non-nuclear weaponry. It was the East Bloc's conventional superiority that led NATO to deploy its first nuclear weapons on European soil a quarter century ago.
While the ratification process is the responsibility of the Foreign Relations panel, the Armed Services Committee, chaired by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), will conduct its own examination of the agreement, focusing on the implications for the overall military balance in Europe. Nunn's committee will send its recommendations on the treaty to Foreign Relations before the treaty is submitted to the full Senate, probably in April, when leaders hope to bring the ratification question to a final vote.
Although there is a consensus that the treaty, the first that will actually reduce nuclear weaponry, will be ratified, it is found wanting not only by staunch congressional conservatives but also by experts such as former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. But since the treaty has been signed, some critics take the position that it should be ratified for political reasons, its technical flaws notwithstanding.
In the view of some observers, the upcoming debate, expected to be the most thorough airing of nuclear arms control issues in nearly 10 years, will focus not on the treaty now before Congress but on the potential agreement on strategic, intercontinental weapons--those with ranges of 3,000 miles or more--now being negotiated in Geneva, the so-called START talks. The U.S.-Soviet treaty covers missiles with a range of 300 to 3,000 miles.
"Already, the battleground may be shifting from killer amendments, which would sink this treaty, to amendments designed to sink the strategic arms reduction talks," said Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a strong supporter of the agreement.
'No Cut in Weaponry'
"We could see, for example, an amendment saying there will be no cut in international weaponry until there is some specified balance in conventional arms."
There is already such a precedent. In 1972, the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) amended an executive agreement that accompanied the first SALT treaty, requiring that a future treaty on strategic offensive arms give the United States and the Soviet Union equal numbers of weapons.
In recent weeks, Cranston, as the No. 2 leader of Senate Democratic majority, has sought personal commitments from Senate colleagues that they will not support a "killer amendment" which would require that the treaty be renegotiated.
"I have talked to well beyond the 51 senators that it would take" to block such an amendment," he said, "and we are close to getting it." The Foreign Relations panel will hear weeks of testimony before debating any amendments and reservations late next month.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence also will examine the treaty, beginning late this week or early next week, with a particular eye on its complex verification procedures.
At the same time that Shultz testifies before Foreign Relations today, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will appear before Armed Services.
Nunn enters the treaty hearings with questions about NATO's relative military strength and doubts about the trustworthiness of the Administration in presenting the treaty to Congress, an aide said.