President Reagan holds that summit talks with the Soviet Union should be keyed to working out ''tangible results'' beforehand. Now he has heard unmistakably two messages from the Senate, controlled by his own party, that he should alter his position.
He had heard the same message from Canada's Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau a week ago in London, which produced a testy exchange. Japan, America's second-largest trading partner, pleaded this week at Geneva's Disarmament Conference for a resumption of nuclear test ban talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Democratic leadership in Washington, as the Senate considers funding for antisatellite weapons testing, proclaims ''unity . . . to halt the dangerous provocation of defensive weapons in space.''
Taken together, all this represents a considerable chorus calling for Mr. Reagan to relent in his position toward talks with the Soviets.
He should listen to these appeals, at least to the extent that leaders of his own party are urging. What Sens. Howard H. Baker Jr. and Charles H. Percy asked of the President was to set a schedule for summit meetings between the White House and the Kremlin, such as the yearly meetings like last week's in London among the Western economic powers. As if to underscore a bipartisan base for such a meeting, the Senate later voted 2 to 1 to withhold money for testing American antisatellite weapons unless the President made an immediate good-faith effort to negotiate test limits.
There need be no linkage between arms talks and broadly based talks between the superpower leaders.
The five-year lapse in face-to-face sessions between superpower leaders is simply too long. Whatever bargaining utility might have existed in the process of consenting to such talks has been surpassed by the stone chill in dialogue and the acceleration in the arms race by both camps.
Incidents like the Soviet downing of a South Korean airliner last fall, the report by an Italian prosecutor of direct Bulgarian and implicit Kremlin involvement in the attempt on Pope John Paul II's life, and the cruel suppression of dissidents like Andrei Sakharov do not make civil discourse between an idealistic American President and the Soviet system's leader easy. The fast turnover at the Soviet helm, with three party chairmen the past two years, and the possibility of a White House shift suggest that continuity in personal contact could be hard to sustain. The White House is right that regular summit scheduling ''would not in and of itself solve the very real substantive problems existing between our two countries with such different values and interests.''
The electoral politics of this issue should not be allowed to govern. It could be pointed out that the Republicans are facing a tough fight to keep control of the Senate this year, and Mr. Percy's own seat is in jeopardy. By also calling for regular, unconditional superpower talks, the Republicans are neutralizing a Democratic argument.
The fact is, Mr. Reagan himself reportedly wanted channels set up to prepare for a summit after the late Yuri Andropov took office, but the project was scuttled by opposition within his own administration. Politically speaking, Mr. Reagan or any successor would surely gain, after a summit, by telling the American people, ''This is where I agreed with my Soviet counterpart, and here is where we disagreed.''
Above this political self-interest is another point: Peoples of the Western world, and we assume the East, want assurance that the superpower leaders really understand each other's thinking, that opportunities for peace that might emerge from changing circumstances are not lost.
Given the differences in the two systems, there could be no end to finding reasons not to meet. By acknowledging the benefit of consistent discourse, Mr. Reagan could help dispel the impression of today's dangerous, deepening superpower impasse.