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Behind the Headlines Old and New Battles in Congress

As the Congressional budget-cutting and tax reform battles rage in the House and Senate this session, other issues on the legislative agenda are certain to be the focus of no less vigorous debates in the chambers of Congress, and between the White House and Capitol Hill.

And haunting the legislators as they approach questions like aid to Israel and perhaps the proposed arms sale to Jordan as well, will be the same ubiquitous spector of the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law passed before Congress adjourned for recess last month.

Israel has already decided to voluntarily return $51 million it received last October when the U.S. turned over a $1.2 billion economic assistance package approved by Congress for fiscal year 1986.

The amount represents the 4.3 percent that the government will have to trim from U.S. foreign aid programs for every recipient country when automatic spending cuts go into effect in March. Unlike other countries receiving U.S. aid, Israel was awarded the entire amount in a lump sum at the beginning of the fiscal year.

SLICING MORE OUT OF ISRAEL AID PACKAGE

Another slice out of the Israel aid package approved by Congress for the current fiscal year will almost certainly be taken in March, with Israel’s $1.8 billion package of military aid laid out on the chopping board together with security assistance programs to other countries.

Israel has not yet received the bulk of its military grant and the Reagan Administration has said that all fiscal year 1986 military aid will be cut, including that of Israel.

What happens to Israel aid for fiscal year 1987 appears to be anybody’s guess. The President is expected to present his budget to Congress next month, and his resistance to raising taxes suggests that the entire amount required by the Gramm-Rudman law to be cut from the federal deficit–over $50 billion for 1987–will be trimmed from the budget.

But protests are already being heard from Congress that more of the brunt should be borne by the military sector while new revenue-raising strategies are adopted to save some needed programs. If the White House and Congress can’t agree, new automatic cuts could resolve the issue next fall.

In the meantime, Israel has requested about the same amount in aid for 1987 that it was awarded for this fiscal year–$1.2 billion in economic assistance and $1.9 billion in military grants. The request for military aid represents a $100 million increase over the fiscal year 1986 level.

Sounding out the Israel Embassy for expectations about U.S. aid for Israel in fiscal year 1986 evoked expressions of cautious optimism from its Economic Affairs Minister, Dan Halperin, that the White House will seek an aid package from Congress at approximately or slightly less than the levels requested. Others are less sanguine about how pernicious the Gramm-Rudman knife might prove to be.

ANOTHER CHARGED ISSUE

Another charged issue certain to come up within the next few weeks–the Administration’s proposed arms sale to Jordan–appears to be facing a swift and almost pre-determined outcome.

The plan to sell Jordan a $1.9 billion package of sophisticated American weapons, including 40 advanced fighters (F-16s or F-20s), 108 Stinger surface-to-air missiles and 12 improved Hawk surface-to-air missile units will, by all indications, be overwhelmingly rejected and the expected Presidential veto overridden, according to a staff member at the office of Sen. Richard Lugar (R. III.). Lugar is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Unless the Administration opts to back down or to seek some sort of new compromise, the aide said, the President might well face a humiliating defeat on the issue–a defeat that senior Republican leaders had earlier sought to avoid.

The Jordan arms sale was temporarily put aside last fall as part of a compromise between staunch opponents of the bill and those who hoped to avert an embarrassment to President Reagan in the face of overwhelming Congressional opposition to the sale.

A resolution passed by both Houses prohibited the President from selling the proposed arms package until March 1, unless “direct and meaningful peace negotiations between Israel and Jordan are underway.”

TRYING TO BUY SOME TIME

In a recent press briefing, however, Lugar said that the “faltering” Middle East peace process would result in the introduction of a disapproval bill well before the March deadline and probably soon after the resumption of Congress last week. He said the Foreign Relations Committee would hold a hearing on the peace process almost immediately after the recess.

Lugar and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R. Kans.) are currently seeking support for a resolution that would extend the March deadline, allowing the White House to buy some more time while it works to push the peace process ahead.

The Administration’s decision to send Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy to Europe two weeks ago for separate meetings with King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has been interpreted in part as a final attempt to avert a Congressional resolution blocking the arms sale by demonstrating some progress toward peace talks.

Peres is on a European tour to win support for efforts to boost the peace process, possibly through an international conference that would serve as a backdrop for direct negotiations between Israel and Jordan.

Even if Murphy brings back with him some new evidence of movement, however, it would have to be substantial to change minds in Congress, especially in light of the budget worries on post Gramm-Rudman Capitol Hill.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last fall, Secretary of State George Shultz acknowledged that the U.S. would probably be asked to foot most of the bill for the arms package to Jordan.

In any case, Murphy is already reported to be warning from Europe that no “dramatic” breakthroughs should be expected from his trip.

GEARING UP FOR ANOTHER BATTLE

Meanwhile, some members of Congress have already begun gearing up for another battle over arms to the Middle East–a battle that the Administration has not yet officially launched.

A new “Dear Colleague” letter that began circulating in the House during the winter recess says the Administration is trying to sell Saudi Arabia a $1 billion arms package that includes Sidewinder missiles, Stinger missiles and launchers, Blackhawk helicopters, Harpoon missiles, and electronic components to enhance the offensive capability of Saudi fighter aircraft.

The letter, circulated during the recess with 12 signatures, seeks co-sponsors on a resolution to reject the sale should the President notify Congress of his intent to go ahead with the proposed package.

In the Senate, Alan Cranston (D. Calif.) announced earlier this month that he would lead the opposition to the Administration’s still unofficial proposal, charging that the Saudis are actively giving aid and comfort to Libya while they continue to bankroll Syria and the PLO. Cranston called on the Reagan Administration to abandon plans to provide the Saudi kingdom with additional American arms.

ISSUE OF THE GENOCIDE CONVENTION

Also on the foreign affairs agenda is a 37-year-old international agreement that Jews and others would like to see the Senate finally give its blessing.

The United Nations Convention Outlawing Genocide was signed by the U.S. and 95 other countries after its conclusion in December 1948. Drafted in reaction to the Holocaust, it has since been endorsed by every American President except Eisenhower.

But conservative opposition, most recently led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R. N.C.), has blocked ratification of the treaty, contending it would compromise U.S. sovereignty. Helms voted in favor of the ratification bill approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last spring, after reservations were included that addressed some of his long-standing concerns. But when Dole tried to bring it to a vote at the end of last session, Helms turned around and blocked it again.

Dole has since made clear that he would make every attempt to get the bill on to the floor early in this session, in spite of a feared filibuster led by Helms and Sen. Chic Hecht, a conservative Jewish Republican from Nevada with whom Helms recently visited Israel.

But this time it appears that Hecht will be taking the lead in blocking ratification, with vigorous support from Helms. Hecht had a “heated exchange” with Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D. Ohio), in which the Nevada Senator said he would bring strong documentation to the Senate floor supporting his claim that the Convention could be used against Israel, according to a staff member at Hecht’s office.

Israel is a signatory to the genocide treaty, and Jewish groups have long been urging its ratification. Some Republicans who supported the reservations endorsed by the Administration and which is now attached to the ratification bill, appear confident that a conservative filibuster can be overcome as long as no similar attempt to block a vote comes from liberal Democrats who maintain that the reservations have watered down the spirit of the treaty.

But an aide in Lugar’s office said he thought it unlikely that supporters of the treaty would permit another delay by opposing the reservations.

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