House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) appealed to President Carter yesterday to delay indefinitely the planned sale of jet warplanes to Middle Eastern countries or face defeat on the issue in Congress. But Carter, saying "these proposals are in the national interest," refused to yield.
Carter said in a press conference that he might put off submission of the controversial arms sales for two or three days at the most due to current negotiations with lawmakers, and some congressional sources said the proposals might be sent to the Capitol on Friday.
Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance met with several concerned senators late yesterday, but there was no indication that a compromise agreement is likely. After meeting with Vance, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Carter administration has "settled on the course it intends to take" and that "a confrontation is inevitable."
Vance will meet senior members of the Foreign Relations Committee this morning for further discussions. The original administration plan was to send the warplane proposals to Congress shortly after that meeting. The Senate committee, in turn, scheduled a business meeting for this afternoon, and there were suggestions that a resolution of disapproval might be passed by the committee at that time.
In order to block an arms sale proposed by the executive branch, both houses of Congress must vote resolutions of disapproval within 30 days after its submission. The Carter administration scheduled submission of the Middle East warplane sales for this week so Congress would have time to consider them before the Memorial Day recess.
Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, who arrived here yesterday afternoon for talks with Vance, reiterated his country's opposition to the planned sale of jet aircraft to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Remarks by Dayan as he embarked in Tel Aviv were interpreted in some news reports as a declaration that Israel is willing to do without warplanes it was promised if this is the price of denying planes to the Arab states. But a senior Israeli Embassy official here denied interpretation, saying it is not the Israeli position.
In his press conference, Carter said that technically Congress will be presented with separate notifications that the U.S. plans to sell 75 F16s to Israel, 15 F15s to Israel, 60 F15s to Saudi Arabia and 50 F15s to Egypt. But the president reiterated that "I look on them as a package" and repeated that if any of the sales is disapproved, he intends to withdraw all of them.
The linking of the Israeli sale with those to Arab states is one of the most controversial aspects of the plan. Congressional sources said there is more sentiment to vote disapproval of the entire package than simply to vote disapproval of the most hotly contested sale, that to Saudi Arabia.
O'Neill, talking to reporters after a meeting of House and Senate Democratic leaders, said he was appealing for "a substantial delay" because "I just think it's follhardy to send up something you can't win on."
"By my reading the president doesn't have the votes either in the [House International Relations] Committee or on the floor," said O'Neill. He suggested that the arms sale package be withheld until relations between Israel and Egypt improve - in effect, for an indefinite time.
The Speaker said Senate Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd (W-Va.) joined in advising Carter to delay: But a spokesman for Byrd said the senator had suggested on a temporary posponement in the interest of negotiations rather than a lengthy delay.
House Republican Leader John J. Rhodes (Ariz.) released a letter to Carter, dated Monday, urging that the proposed warplanes sales not be viewed as a package. Rhodes called for nearly doubling the number of jets to be supplied to Israel, terming the administration proposal "totally inadequate to [Israel's] defense needs."
Rhodes said that the supplies to the Arab states must be "individually weighed and considered with full awareness of the potential impact on the Middle East and the relations between the individual nations and the United States."
Sen. Charles Mc C. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) told a news conference that "the president is inviting a resolution of disapproval if he submits this as a package." Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) said, "I think the mood of the Senate is a wish that it would go away."
White House sources continued to maintain that the arms sales have sufficient support in Congress to sustain Carter's position. The sources said Carter had repeated this assertion to O'Neill in a telephone conversation following the president's press conference.
Defending his proposals, Carter said that the Ford administration had originally committed the United States to sell either the F15 or F16 to Saudi Arabia. "They want these weapons for defensive purposes," he said.
Carter said that he renewed the U.S. commitment both last year and this year. While reiterating the U.S. commitment to the security of Isreael, Carter said that "to treat the moderate Arabs with fairness and friendship and strengthen their commitment to us in return is in the best interests of our country and of Israel."