WASHINGTON -- A week from now three Senate Committees will gather in separate hearings to begin dissecting the INF treaty, a pact to eliminate an entire class of medium-range nuclear missiles and one expected to win Senate endorsement.
In a process that will take months -- it could be late March or early April before it hits the Senate floor for debate that could run a month or even longer -- the Foreign Relations Committee, the Armed Services panel and the Intelligence Committee will pour over the 150 pages of an agreement specifying in detail how missiles bearing about 2,000 warheads will be destroyed.
The warheads themselves are not included in the treaty to destroy the missiles, which have ranges from 300 to 3,400 miles.
Senate leaders have indicated they expect treaty support is strong enough to approve it -- technically a president ratifies a treaty after the advice and consent of the Senate -- but there are concerns conservative opponents may craft crippling or 'killer' amendments that could endanger the pact or force unacceptable renogotiations with Moscow.
It will take a two-thirds vote to approve the resolution of ratification that will be before the Senate, but just a simple majority to pass any understanding, reservation or amendment. Understandings are binding only on the United States and can serve as policy statements, while reservations can sometimes affect both sides but do not require the renegotiations that an amendment would entail.
Assistant Democratic leader Alan Cranston of California is confident treaty backers can get 51 votes to deal with proposals on non-relevant topics, such as Afghanistan or refugees.
But an aide said the success in dealing with language on verification or the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that affects the 'Star Wars' program 'depends on how good a job we can do on alternatives ... that let senators express concern without voting for a killer amendment.'
Cranston has estimated there could be up to 23 conservatives dissatisfied with the treaty and willing to vote against it. Conservative Jesse Helms, R-N.C., skilled at crafting language to cripple a bill that is too politically dangerous to vote against, has not tipped his hand on what he has in mind.
But Helms last week sent President Reagan a letter laying out 13 sharply worded questions about the treaty, questioning apparent problems with the data and photographs Moscow provided with the treaty and the State Department's handling of the issue.
While the Armed Services panel examines the military aspects of the pact and its implications for NATO and the imbalance in conventional forces, the Intelligence Committee will study verification issues.
And the Foreign Relations Committee, breaking with a tradition of using the cavernous and ornate Caucus Room for its work, will use a new auditorium-like room in the Hart Office Building.
Although the comittee is headed by Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., one session will be run by Joseph Biden, D-Del., the next senior member of the full committee and chairman of its European Subcommittee. Biden was designated by Pell to consult with European leaders in advance of the hearings.
Biden said last week he is considering additions to the ratification resolution to reassure NATO nations about the pact and to lay out U.S. goals for later talks on cutting strategic missiles, conventional and chemical force talks and short-range nuclear weapons.
Sitting at the Foreign Relations Committee dias on opening day will be Senate Democratic leader Robert Byrd and Republican leader Robert Dole. Dole is seeking his party's presidential nomination and only recently signed up as a treaty supporter.
After what are likely to be lengthy opening statements from the leaders and committee members, Secretary of State George Shultz is due to lay out the administration's case for the pact signed Dec. 8 by Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
Over the next two weeks Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, treaty negotiators, panels for former secretaries of state and defense will parade before the committee.
Rather than smother the committee with a ream of paperwork by providing the entire treaty negotiating record developed over six years, the State Department has been asked to provide an analysis of the record, something it will declare spells out exactly what is in the record and what it means. That, a committee aide said, will avoid in later years divisive fights such as the one that erupted over administration attempts to expand the scope of the ABM treaty.
Reports from the Armed Services and Intelligence committees will be given to the Foreign Relations panel, and probably to the entire Senate, for use in sending the treaty to the Senate floor.