PARIS — President Bush on Monday expressed his concern "about the Soviet people during the bleak winter" and said he is prepared to send food if the Soviet Union's collapsing economy proves unable to provide for its populace.
Bush emphasized that there are legal restraints on American aid for Moscow but reflected the dramatic turnabout in U.S.-Soviet relations by saying: "I would want to try to help."
Just last March, Bush and other Republicans sharply criticized House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) for suggesting aid to the Soviet Union, saying it was "premature."
But on Monday, before a two-hour meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the President said, "We want to try to help with the evolution of market systems and the evolution of change that is taking place."
The new attitude seems to reflect a desire to keep up with Western allies, particularly Germany, which have moved out in front of a program to help save Gorbachev's reforms by propping up the economy. It also may reflect an understanding of the continuing deterioration of the Soviet economy and the threat it poses to political stability.
Economic and political specialists at the State Department have been studying ways to mount a major aid program, sources said, but there has been no operational planning because no decisions have yet been made on what kind of program to launch.
Also, any such plan faces difficult legal and political obstacles. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 forbids giving the Soviet Union the type of foreign aid regularly administered by the Agency for International Development.
The only recognized loophole in that ban comes under the heading of disaster relief. Such relief was extended to the Soviets during the Reagan Administration after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 and by both the Reagan and Bush administrations after the 1988 earthquake in Armenia.
AID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance has developed standing contingency plans enabling a quick mobilization of food deliveries should the Soviet Union's food problems be designated a disaster, an AID official said.
But working-level officials said that such a designation would require the State Department and Bush to make a virtually unprecedented political decision. Those who monitor the Soviet Union's food supply are skeptical that the problems there qualify as a disaster. They also warn that funds for a Soviet disaster relief program might have to be diverted from Ethiopia or Sudan, both suffering man-made famines that are arguably far more severe than anything facing the Soviets.
Reports suggest that the harvest in most of the food-producing sections of the Russian republic and other constituent republics are at record or near-record levels. But the distribution system has broken down as the central Soviet economy disintegrates, and there is no market economy in place yet to replace it. Thus, shelves are virtually empty while food piles up in fields, warehouses and railway depots.
The growing movement toward political fragmentation in the Soviet Union has made matters worse, some observers believe. Fruit is unheard of in state stores in Moscow, while apples rot on the ground in orchards in the Ukraine, said a Senate staffer who has been monitoring the situation.
He noted that forces in the republics who resent Moscow's control have exerted strong pressure to avoid sending food to the capital.
"Our estimates are that their own food can get them through the winter. The issue is distribution, political tensions among the constituent republics, the failure of economic reform," he said.
Trade credits remain another recourse under existing U.S. procedures for funneling aid to the Soviet Union. But the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment must be waived before the Soviets can be given trade credits to buy food or the means of transporting it. The amendment was imposed to punish the Soviet Union's former restrictive policy on emigration of Soviet Jews. Although emigration reforms have allowed Jews to leave in practice, the Soviet Parliament has not officially passed the laws codifying those reforms.
U.S. government agencies also conceivably could lend expertise in getting food where it is needed.
But while Bush did not address the technical difficulties of aiding the Soviets, his intent was clear as he said that the United States wants "to help new friends when you find them if they're in jeopardy."
Lauter reported from Paris and Johnston from Washington.