WASHINGTON -- President Bush extended a waiver on trade restrictions with the Soviet Union yesterday as a step toward granting at least a modest package of U.S. economic relief for the beleaguered Soviet economy.
At the same time, arms control negotiators prepared for what is hoped will be a final round of bargaining aimed at resolving the mostly technical differences over a treaty to limit strategic nuclear arms.
Simultaneous action on the two fronts came as U.S. and Soviet officials are looking toward the possibility of a summit between Mr. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow late this month to sign a strategic arms treaty.
This would be followed in July by a London summit of industrialized nations, where Mr. Gorbachev's appeal for economic help is certain to be a major topic.
The United States is neither demanding nor offering to trade economic assistance for cooperation on the strategic arms agreement. But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday, "It would be probably disingenuous to suggest that there isn't some connection there."
"We want to help," he asserted. "But we also want to make sure that we get return for what help we give."
If Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev -- whose negotiators concluded work last weekend on a dispute about cutting back conventional forces in Europe -- can also come to terms on strategic arms cuts before the London summit, it could benefit both leaders, according to administration officials and outside analysts.
Each could claim an arms control achievement while demonstrating the Soviet commitment to reduce defense spending, something potential lender nations would like, they said. Mr. Bush's one-year extension of a waiver of the Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions first granted in December will allow him to provide Mr. Gorbachev with the $1.5 billion in agricultural credits to buy U.S. grain. The waiver also will allow a trade agreement with the Soviets in which they get favored status.
The White House says Mr. Bush has not yet decided to offer these relatively limited forms of assistance, but he is considered likely to do so.
Meanwhile, the United States is likely to be asked to cooperate in some broader form of economic assistance that might be extended through international lending institutions.
At least five of Mr. Bush's six economic summit partners have agreed to let Mr. Gorbachev come to London to discuss the proposal, but the president is still pondering the issue, the White House said.
As these economic questions simmer, negotiators on the START strategic arms limitation treaty are about to resume serious haggling after months of delay.
Although all of START's major issues were settled last year, technical questions that don't lend themselves to split-the-difference compromises remain in dispute -- such as what sorts of information can be put in code during testing of a missile.
Mr. Bush is not insisting on completion of the START treaty as a prerequisite for a Moscow summit, but both sides have said they would like to get the treaty signed soon.
"There's always an incredible amount of progress that's made the last few days," Mr. Fitzwater said of last-minute negotiating before a summit. "If people want to get things agreed to, they can go pretty quickly."