WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration backed down Wednesday in its constitutional and political dispute with Senate Democrats over the Administration's right to interpret arms control treaties as it sees fit.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Secretary of State George P. Shultz gave assurances that testimony by Administration witnesses on the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty now before the Senate is "authoritative" and not subject to later reinterpretation.
Nunn and Byrd, in a statement released Wednesday in Paris, where they were discussing the treaty with French President Francois Mitterrand, said the Shultz letter provides "important assurances which must govern the relationship between the Senate and the executive branch in the treaty process."
The Shultz concession appears to settle, for now, a dispute that threatened to delay Senate approval of the INF treaty, which has strong support in Congress.
The debate, which has its roots in the Reagan Administration's attempt to reinterpret the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, is not one to stir the public imagination, and it says nothing about the terms of the INF treaty itself. But it is the kind of fight Washington thrives on, pitting powerful congressional Democrats against a Republican President and secretary of state on fundamental issues of institutional power.
On a more overtly political level, it also has bearing upon who gets the credit for a treaty that most consider a good deal for the United States and that appears certain to be overwhelmingly ratified by the Senate.
"They're confronting a fundamental political issue," said Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Assn., a private organization that monitors arms control issues. "Can the Administration be relied upon to tell the truth? Is the United States a reliable treaty partner?
"Nunn is arguing on a constitutional basis, trying to get at what the ratification process really means," Mendelsohn said.
The dispute arose from the Administration's unilateral declaration in 1985 that the 16-year-old ABM treaty allows extensive space testing of components of President Reagan's anti-missile "Star Wars," or Strategic Defense Initiative.
This so-called "broad" reading of the ABM treaty directly contradicted testimony that officials of the Richard M. Nixon Administration had given the Senate in 1972 about the treaty's limits.
Reagan Administration officials have insisted that the executive branch has the constitutional right to reinterpret treaties over the years. But furious Democrats charged that the Senate cannot be expected to ratify an accord if its meaning can be changed later.
The INF treaty ratification hearings became a forum for the dispute, with Nunn last week barring any further testimony from Administration witnesses until the Senate was assured that the interpretation it was hearing was definitive.
Shultz's letter, delivered to the Senate leaders Tuesday night and released publicly Wednesday, said that "all INF testimony of executive branch officials within their authorized scope (will be) authoritative." Shultz also pledged that "the Reagan Administration will in no way depart from the INF treaty as we are presenting it to the Senate."
Avoided Setting Precedent
However, Shultz carefully avoided setting a precedent for the more sweeping strategic arms talks now under way with the Soviets and did not bind future presidents to the agreement. Nor does the letter "have any impact on past treaties," according to White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
"I emphasize it deals with consideration of the INF treaty, not past treaties," Fitzwater said.
Nevertheless, the concession did allow the Democrats to exact a price for passing on a treaty they already supported. Nunn announced that his committee will be willing to hear from Administration officials next week when ratification hearings resume. Shultz is scheduled to appear Tuesday.
Backers of the space-based missile defense program and of the Administration's reading of the ABM treaty had urged Shultz not to back down, arguing that to do so would undercut the case for the legality of SDI under the 1972 anti-missile treaty.
Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) was among a group of Republican senators who met with Shultz last week and blocked an earlier effort to compromise with the Democrats. Wilson said that such a deal would threaten SDI and executive branch authority to negotiate treaties. He also said he found it "offensive" that Democrats were demanding an assertion from the President, in writing, that he will not lie to the Senate.
Soviets Not Committed
Wilson and other Republicans also pointed out that letters from the secretary of state and unilateral declarations by the U.S. Senate are in no way binding on the Soviets, who are obligated only by the strict language of the treaty itself.