Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) yesterday suggested that the administration delay the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] submission of its controversial Middle East-arms sales package in hope that discussions underway among some senators might resolve "sticking points" about the proposal.
While declining to identify either the senators or the precise aspect of the arms package they are discussing, Byrd said that with a delay of four or five days, "some of the problems might be talked out before blood is shed" on the Senate floor.
The administration has proposed selling Israel 75 F16s and 15 F15s, selling Saudi Arabia 60 F15s, and selling Egypt 50 F5Es. The F15s and F16s are among the most advanced jet fighters in the U.S. arsenal.
In order to nullify the powerful Israel lobby's fierce opposition to what would be America's first large arms sale to Arab nations in years. President Carter has proposed the sale as a package that must be approved or disapproved in its entirety.
Byrd wante the administration that to insist on the sales as an all-or-nothing package deal would be ill-advised.
"I doubt it there was this insistence on a package, whether it would fly," he said at his regular Saturday press conference. "I think there has to be a recognition that these are separate sales and proposals."
He said there is no legal basis for linking the sales, and that Congress can disapprove the whole package or any part of it.
Nevertheless, Byrd said, there is support in the Senate for the idea of warplane sales to each of the three Middle Eastern nations.
"The Saudi have been our friends there," he said, helping to hold down oil prices, acting as a restraining influence on Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and contributing to regional stability.
Saudi Arabis has its own border problems with Iraq and Ethiopia, Byrd noted, and could buy fighers from France it turned down by the United States.
On Byrd's advice, the administration agreed to delay formal notification of the proposed sales until after the Senate completed its debate on the Panama Canal treaties. The notification has been expected this week.
After the formal notification, Congress has 30 days to consider the sales. Both houses must vote against them to prevent them from going through.
Meanwhile, Byrd served notice to the administration that the heat of the Panama Canal debate was nothing next to the fire he expects if the Senate debates a strategic arms limitation treaty.
"It's a far more important treaty than the Panama Canal treaty was," he said. "This treaty goes to the vital interests of the United States. The Panama Canal treaty didn't."
Byrd said the Senate's agenda between now and October includes the labor law overhaul bill, the budget resolution, the energy bill and the proposed tax cut.