WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that he and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev agree on the need to settle "narrow" differences over a conventional arms treaty and predicted a superpower summit "sooner rather than later."
As a high-level Soviet envoy arrived here to seek U.S. support for economic reforms, Mr. Bush said "there's reason to be hopeful" about the seriousness of the Soviet effort and held out the possibility at least of extending agricultural credits, if not of granting more extensive aid.
The president discussed U.S.-Soviet relations at length with reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine, a day after holding a 15- to 20-minute telephone conversation with Mr. Gorbachev. A transcript of his remarks was released here.
"I want to go to Moscow, and I've said that, and I don't know that the Soviets have believed this all along, because there is speculation in our papers that we're pulling away," Mr. Bush said. "So I had an opportunity to tell him that we are not moving away from him or the Soviet Union, that we want to do what's right, we want to see their reform continue."
Mr. Bush said, "If I'm criticized on the Soviet relationship, it's for staying what some would say is too close to Gorbachev. And I don't think so."
The White House continues to insist on resolving a remaining dispute over the unratified Conventional Forces in Europe treaty before agreeing to a summit. But Mr. Bush said that he and Mr. Gorbachev agreed "we must get these differences . . . worked out" and that the "narrow" gap could be overcome "if the Soviets will move a little bit."
It appeared that remaining differences could be ironed out this weekend when Secretary of State James A. Baker III meets in Lisbon, Portugal, with Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said "the next step in CFE is that there will be follow-up discussions in Lisbon on Saturday," when the two men will meet for the signing of the Angola peace accord.
U.S. officials hoped that a long-range nuclear arms treaty, stalled by the CFE dispute, would be ready for signing by the time of a summit, but Mr. Fitzwater suggested yesterday that progress toward a treaty might be enough to advance summit plans.
Asked when a summit could occur, Mr. Bush said, "Well, sooner, rather than later." He also said he would change his schedule accordingly. U.S. and Soviet officials had earlier agreed that the summit would occur in the first half of this year.
Mr. Bush said, "We're going to stay this course, and we're going to iron out these difficulties, and then we'll see how we go on some of these technical matters like [most-favored nation trade status] and [agricultural] credits and these points that are very important. But I think if we get our arms agreements, get our summit going, we can accomplish a lot."
He spoke on the eve of meetings today between Secretary Baker and other high-level Bush administration officials and a delegation led by Soviet envoy Yevgeny M. Primakov that is expected to outline Soviet economic reform plans and make a pitch for a major infusion of Western aid to help the Soviets through the tough adjustment period. Mr. Bush will be meeting with the Soviets, although no time had been set yesterday.
While noncommittal on major economic aid and the question of whether Mr. Gorbachev will be invited to attend the July economic summit of seven industrialized democracies, Mr. Bush said that a U.S. team that discussed agriculture with the Soviets had been well-received and that the Soviets had made a valid argument for the granting of agricultural credits. He said he was examining the request in terms of overall reforms and wanted to see the credit, if granted, not only help alleviate hunger but perhaps help in the whole Soviet agricultural system.