A White House lobbyist stumbled out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room the other day, playfully feigning exhaustion over that body's dissection of the landmark arms control pact signed in December by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. ``It's a little like a James Bond movie,'' he said. ``You know things will come out all right, but it's a thrill-a-minute 'til the end.''
In fact, the United States-Soviet Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was virtually assured of Senate approval before the ink dried on its vellum pages. The pact would eliminate medium- and short-range missiles both superpowers have based in Europe.
Three months after the signing, the INF Treaty's ratification seems as inevitable as ever. Only a dozen or so of the Senate's most conservative members actually oppose it. Moreover, the treaty is actively supported by as ideologically diverse a group as has been assembled on behalf of any major issue in the Reagan era.
But the INF accord has become the vehicle for an array of conflicting political agendas, as individual senators seek to use the debate over the treaty to influence a raft of defense and arms control policies. Consequently, the Senate's consideration of the pact has been punctuated by the kind of tension and rhetoric that usually accompany more hotly contested matters.
``It has gotten a bit complicated,'' concedes Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia.
Three Senate committees have spent the past six weeks scrutinizing various aspects of the agreement and considering its potential impact on the security of the US and Europe. Senators have debated the adequacy of the INF pact's safeguards against cheating, as well as its effect on the balance of non-nuclear forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact.
Under the relentless questioning of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, perhaps the treaty's most outspoken opponent, administration officials appearing before the Foreign Relations Committee have been forced to clarify the circumstances under which the US might withdraw from the treaty. He and other critics also have also compelled the administration to defend the treaty's basic premise that intermediate weapons pose a unique threat to the security of NATO, and that intercontinental ballistic missiles, unaffected by this treaty, do not place comparable pressures on Europeans.
Yet panel members have embroiled themselves in heated and sometimes bitter exchanges on an array of arms control topics - some of them loosely related to the treaty at hand, most of them to be revisited next month when the full Senate votes on the accord.
For example, Democrats are pushing to attach language to the treaty that would bind future administrations to the interpretation presented in committee hearings by Reagan administration spokesmen. Republicans are resisting. They see the Democratic effort as an attempt to prevent the administration from adopting a broad interpretation the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that would permit advanced testing of the proposed space-based antimissile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
The imbroglio could be resolved as early as Tuesday, when the Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote to send the treaty to the Senate floor. But the episode has left raw feelings, even among lawmakers who support the treaty.
``Nobody really cares whether an administration interprets INF in a broad or narrow way because the treaty's requirements are pretty clearcut,'' says Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of North Dakota, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and one of the treaty's critics. ``What's happening is that the INF debate has gotten tangled in other matters. The debate is aimed at other issues.''
Indeed, the Senate's consideration of the INF treaty is clearly undertaken with an eye toward the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) now under negotiation in Geneva.
In any event, members of the Senate are not taking any chances. A START agreement would eliminate half the superpowers' intercontinental ballistic missiles and strike at the heart of the deterrence doctrine on which post-war US strategic thinking has been based. Many senators consider the INF debate a dress rehearsal for the START deliberations to come, and are using the opportunity to marshal facts and test arguments in preparation for what is expected to be a blistering debate.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, a member of the foreign relations panel, says: ``INF is a rehearsal in the sense that we haven't had a significant arms control treaty before the Foreign Relations Committee since SALT II. People have had to go to school again on the issues.''
``We're not only building arguments, but we're trying to set the tone and create the atmosphere for any START debate,'' says Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, one of the three panels examining the INF Treaty. ``The time we've spent digging and digging and digging has helped bring us more to a common position.''
In part, that common position involves an increasing, bipartisan dissatisfaction with the techniques available to verify Soviet compliance with such arms control treaties as the contemplated START agreement. A report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released last week, said that the US could adequately verify Soviet compliance with the INF accord.
But the incentive to cheat would climb dramatically if a START agreement were in force, in part because the treaty would affect a large percentage of both sides' missile strength.
As a result, the report argued, the US needs better spy equipment to monitor any future pact with the Soviets.