Battle Shaping Up in Congress to Block Administration-proposed Arms Sale Package to Saudi Arabia

As the Reagan Administration prepares to submit to Congress a proposed arms sale package for Saudi Arabia, bipartisan majorities in both the Senate and House are making it clear that it will be rejected. A letter signed by 225 members of the House was delivered to the White House and the State Department Wednesday telling President Reagan that the package will be opposed.

A letter signed by 62 Senators was delivered to Reagan last Friday. Both letters cited a belief that the Saudis have not supported United States national interests in the Middle East nor have they helped combat international terrorism as evidenced by Saudi financial support for terrorist groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The House letter was initiated by Reps. Larry Smith (D. Fla.), Mel Levine (D. Calif.), Dante Fascell (D. Fla.), William Broomfield (R. Mich.), Vin Weber (R. Minn.) and Mickey Edwards (R. Okla.). Sens. Alan Cranston (D. Calif.) and Bob Packwood (R. Ore.) initiated the Senate letter.

In addition to those who signed the letters, spokesmen in both Houses said there are enough other members opposed to the sale to override a possible presidential veto.

ON THE VERGE OF A DECISION

The Administration, meanwhile, maintains it has not yet made any decision on a package which is expected to include 1,600 Maverick anti-tank missiles, F-15 jet fighters and other equipment.

“We have been engaged in full consultations with Congress,” Phyllis Oakley, a State Department spokesperson, said Tuesday. “We intend to continue to consult fully with Congress on this important issue. We urge all Senators to keep an open mind on this issue during the consultation process.”

But at a press conference Wednesday, Broomfield, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said House members had not been consulted. “I think it’s important if the Administration wants to get an arms package through it’s going to require partnership on the part of Congress and the Administration working together.” He said the Administration can not just decide on what will be sold and then submit it to Congress.

Smith noted that last August, just before Congress took a summer break, State Department and Pentagon officials told the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East that a package had not yet been agreed upon.

But a week after Congress adjourned, The Washington Post gave details of a $1 billion arms sale package the Administration was planning to submit, Smith said.

Smith said he believes the Administration is consulting with members of the Senate and with House Speaker James Wright (D. Tex.) and other House leaders but not with the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee which will be the first to deal with any arms proposal. The Administration may be concentrating on the Senate since House rejection is a certainty and the fate of arms proposals usually lies in the Senate.

Smith noted that the Administration has to submit the proposal to Congress this week or next since it must give Congress the required 50 days to consider an arms proposal before its expected adjournment in November.

Another reason may be the scheduled visit to Washington in mid-October of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. This was denied by Oakley, who said the Administration has no timetable.

The Administration is “trying to do something to make the Saudis happy,” Rep. John Kasich (R. Ohio) said. “They fully expect us to shoot it down.”

This assessment appeared to be confirmed by Oakley Tuesday. When she was asked if she believed the Administration’s plea for an open mind would convince some of those opposed, she replied, “I didn’t say we could; I said we are urging them.”

Oakley stressed that the Administration believes “the sales we are considering will indeed serve and protect the national interest of the United States in this important region of the world. These sales are not a spur of the moment gesture. They would be consistent with Middle East policy followed by Republican and Democratic Administrations.”

Smith stressed Wednesday that Congress believes the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is important. But he noted this would be the fourth sale to the Saudis in nine months. Levine said Congress this year approved the sale of attack helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles and electronic equipment to the Saudis. A proposal to sell the Saudis the Maverick missiles was withdrawn last June because of Congressional opposition.

The Administration scaled down a $2 billion arms proposal to the Saudis in 1986 to $200 million because of Congressional opposition, Smith said. He said they are now using “salami” tactics, slicing up the proposals to submit them a bit at a time. He said he believed that this is only the beginning of the arms the Administration plans to sell the Saudis.

ISRAEL NOT ENDANGERED

Oakley also stressed Tuesday that the proposed sale would not endanger Israel. “These arms sales would not affect the Arab-Israel military balance in any meaningful way,” she said. “The Administration remains committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge.”

But Weber said that concern for Israel was not the main reason for the Congressional opposition. He noted that in collecting Republican signatures for the House letters, Republicans stressed their concern that the Saudis have not cooperated in the Mideast peace effort.

“It is unfortunate that these sales are being opposed by some when the Saudis are providing critical support to U.S. Naval operations in the (Persian) Gulf in ways which many in Congress have long urged,” Oakley said.

But several Congressmen at the press conference Wednesday said the U.S. operation in the Gulf is in the Saudi interest. Smith noted that for too long the U.S. has “substituted” arms sales for “a long-term foreign policy.”

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