Will Mikhail Gorbachev have an ally in Congress? As the Soviet leader and President Reagan prepare to meet next week in Iceland, arms control experts are divided over whether a series of House-sponsored arms control measures, now part of an omnibus government spending bill, will undercut the President's bargaining position.
Reagan administration officials say the measures, which include a one-year ban on antisatellite and most nuclear weapons tests, could tie the President's hands in Iceland, robbing US negotiators of bargaining chips needed to reach an arms agreement favorable to US interests.
``In a nutshell, the House bill is a bad idea coming at the worst possible time,'' says Kenneth Adelman, director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. ``The House can't have it both ways. It can't demand that the President achieve progress in arms control, then remove the very means he has to get it.''
But congressional proponents, frustrated with the lack of progress on arms control issues during the Reagan administration, insist the measures are needed to prod US negotiators in Geneva -- and now in Iceland -- toward a badly needed arms agreement.
``Isn't it interesting how every time the House of Representatives is on the verge of mandating serious arms control, the administration suddenly plunges into high gear,'' says Rep. Edward J. Markey (D) of Massachusetts. ``We are not undercutting you, Mr. President. We are hoping to spur you on.''
Reagan officials are expected to capitalize on the coming Reagan-Gorbachev meeting to pressure the House to abandon the proposals. Senate leaders, meanwhile, say they'll try to broker an 11th-hour compromise.
At issue is an unprecedented package of measures framed by House Democrats to shape US arms control policy. In addition to the test-ban provisions, it calls for major cuts in funding for the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and blocks funding for new chemical weapons as well as weapons that would cause the US to exceed limits prescribed in the unratified SALT II treaty.
The measures are part of the 1987 House defense authorization bill but have also been folded into the House's verison of a ``continuing resolution'' that provides the actual funds for most government programs. The Senate, meanwhile, has adopted weaker, nonbinding versions of the same measures.
US officials, now preparing for the Iceland summit, say by forcing a test moratorium and cuts in SDI, Congress will be stripping the President of the two chips he needs most to force the Soviets to accept deep cuts in offensive weapons.
``While Congress can restrain US programs, it can't restrain Soviet programs,'' Mr. Adelman says.
But House members say they're not persuaded.
``We've been burned too many times in the past,'' says one Senate arms control expert who notes that this is not the first time the White House has used the Geneva arms talks, or summit planning, to urge Congress to mute its criticism of administration arms control policy.
``We're not carrying Gorbachev's water,'' adds this Senate source, who insists that congressional interest in a test ban long predates the recent Gorbachev initiatives. ``It's difficult to understand how an ASAT test ban will undercut the President's ability to get an ASAT agreement, or how a limit on nuclear tests will undercut the President's ability to get a test-ban agreement.''
President Reagan had resisted Gorbachev's overtures. But last week he told the UN he's ready to take ``important steps'' to limit nuclear testing.
``The difficulty is that the administration, having waited so long to offer initiatives in this field [of arms control], has propelled the House into proposing measures of its own,'' comments Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the controversy between the House and the White House. ``But now with the summit, the President is saying `I need all the leverage I can get.'''
Yesterday Senator Cohen and Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia offered compromise proposals designed to reconcile differences between House and Senate conferees now working on the 1987 defense authorization bill.