Awacs Sale Winning As Key Opponents Switch Support to President

The opposition to the sale of AWACS radar planes and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia suffered a serious setback today as the Senate conducted eight hours of debate on the $8.5 billion transaction.

The vote, scheduled for 5 p.m. today, is expected to be close but the momentum appears now to with President Reagan.

Sen. Slade Gorton (R. Wash.) one of the opponents of the sale, announced on the Senate floor this morning that he will now support the President. That brought the vote to 51 to 48 against the sale with Sen. Russell Long (D. La.) the only Senator who had not announced a position.

Sen. Gorton’s announcement today followed the declaration by ten Senators yesterday that they supported the sale. The most surprising switch was that of Sen. Roger Jepsen (R. Iowa), one of the early leading foes of the AWACS sale, who yesterday said he now had to support a Republican President. Jepsen had been opposed to the arms sale since it was first announced in April and had been one of the leading speakers last May at the annual meeting of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Until yesterday the opposition to the sale had expected to win today. But the President, who has met individually with at least 45 Senators has been pressing hard to prevent a Senate veto. Reagan and Senate Majority leader Howard Baker (R. Tenn.) are expected to continue seeking switches in votes of Senate supporters of the sale, particularly Republicans until the final vote is taken.

ARMS SALE ‘MOST DANGEROUS’

Later in the day, Sen. William Cohen (R.Maine), another long time opponent of the sale announced that he had switched to support the sale. Cohen’s surprise announcement came after a tortured speech in which he outlined the dangers of the sale to Israel. But he said he was voting for the sale because Israel’s security is in danger. He said he feared that if the sale was rejected Israel would be blamed for the break up of the Camp David peace process. He said that the White House did not lobby him but he sought a meeting with Reagan to ask for and receive assurances that the President would never allow Israel’s qualitative military edge to be eroded.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D. Mass.), who called the arms sale “one of the most dangerous” ever proposed, told reporters today that he had never seen during his 19 years in the Senate, Senators who had announced their position an a “major policy question” that has been debated throughout the country make 180 degree changes. Kennedy called the President very “persuasive” but said he was not suggesting any improper reason for the switches of Senators opposed to the sale who now support it. He said many have said that their switches were based on secret information which he said they have refused to share with other Senators. He said in the past when there was a case of secret information involving an issue, the Senate went into closed session which is not being the case now.

REAGAN’S LETTER OF ASSURANCES

Gorton based his change from an opponent to a supporter of the sale on a letter sent to him today by Reagan which he said answered his concerns about the sale. The letter, signed by Reagan, said that the AWACS will be transferred to the Saudis “only after the Congress has received, in writing, a Presidential certification containing agreements with Saudi Arabia” that certain conditions have been met. These conditions, outlined by the President previously, included guarantees to protect the security of the equipment being sold to the Saudis to ensure the information will be shared with no one but the United States and to ensure that the 5 AWACS planes would only fly over the area needed to protect the Saudi oilfields and would not endanger Israel.

In his letter, Reagan said, on the command structure of the AWACS planes, “agreements as they concern organizational command control structure for the operation of AWACS are of such a nature to guarantee that the commitments” on the AWACS “will be honored.” Gorton took this to mean that this guarantees joint crewing of the plane. Reagan in his letter noted that since skilled Saudi personnel are in short supply, the U.S. involvement in the Saudi AWACS operation will extend well into the 1990′s.

Another guarantee listed by Reagan that was stressed by Gorton was his promise in the letter that he will certify in writing “that the sale contributes directly to the stability and security of the area, enhances the atmosphere and prospects for progress toward peace and that initiatives toward the peaceful resolution in the region have either been successfully completed or significant progress toward that goal has been accomplished with the substantial assistance of Saudi Arabia.”

In the day long debate today, opponents of the sale and supporters went over much of the arguments that have been advanced over the past several months. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D. R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called the sale a “series of botches” which began with the Carter Administration and continued with the present Administration. He again called on the President to withdraw the sale and work with Congress for a more acceptable proposal.

CONCEDES SAUDIS WILL NOT SUPPORT CAMP DAVID

Sen. Charles Percy (R. III.) chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said rejection of the sale would hinder the President’s ability to conduct foreign policy. He said it makes achieving Middle East peace “more difficult” and would confirm the perception in the Arab world that the U.S. cannot have a balanced policy in the Middle East.

He said approval of the AWACS will not make the Saudis more willing to join the Camp David process but may make them more willing to join an expanded peace process in the Middle East. Percy said the rejection would “jeopardize efforts to bring greater stability to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.” Sen. Barry Goldwater (R. Ariz.) said that rejection of the sale “could lead to war in the Middle East.”

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