The Reagan administration has agreed not to submit its plan to sell advanced radar planes to Saudi Arabia untill Congress has had time "to give advice on the final shape and form" of the arms package -- a delay that probably will keep the proposal off the Hill until midsummer at the earliest, the Senate majority leader said yesterday.
Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said he had suggested the delay to President Reagan last Thursday and "I am happy to say that the president agreed to that request."
The administration has taken fire from all sides in the controversial proposal to sell the Saudis the five radar surrevillance planes, called AWACS, along with equipment to extend the range and prowess of their American-made F15 fighters.
Despite the concerns, expressed most loudly by supporters of Israel who fear that the arms sale would compromise Israeli security, the administration said last week that it will not abandon its proposals.
Baker's announcement on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM) came as the Israeli cabinet issued a formal denunciation of Reagan's decision to sell the weapons systems to the Saudis. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, hailed the decision as a way to improve relations between the United States and his country, the world's largest oil exporter.
A State Department spokesman said yesterday that his agency still has "every confidence that we will be able to achieve approval" of the sales package on the Hill.
"We have not addressed ourselves to timing in this matter," the State Department Spokesman said.
However, Baker said yesterday that timing is everything. He said he made that point last Thursday when he told Reagan that the arms deal was drawing heavy flak in the House and Senate.
"I advised him the program would have difficulties in Congress, and strongly urged the administration to give members of Congress the opportunity to have an input -- to offer advice on the final shape and form of the package that might be submitted," Baker said of his conversation with Reagan.
The senator said it is his understanding that there "will be opportunity for extensive consultation between members of Congress and the State and Defense departments and perhaps the president as well."
Baker conceded that another aspect of timing concerns Israel's general election, scheduled for June 30. An embattled Prime Minister Menachem Begin is facing a tough reelection, which some political observers feel could have been further complicated by a successful, U.S.-Saudi arms deal.
"I suppose it's not pure coincidence. . . . I think that's a factor that ought to be considered," Baker said of the Israeli elections. "The last thing on earth a proposed sale to Saudi Arabia needs is to become a domestic political issue in Israel."
Saudi Oil Minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani said in a national television appearance last week that postponing the sale of the Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft until after the Israeli election "would be interfering in Israel," to help Begin win the race. "I don't think you intend to do that," Yamani said.
Though the Israel election is a factor in the administration's decision to delay its proposal, Baker insisted yesterday that it "was not the prime reason."
The prime reason, he said, is that "if this package is to withstand the challenge of resolutions of disappoval in both the House and Senate . . . . we're going to have to do a lot of work" to win congressional acceptance.
He said the administratin's action in pulling back the proposal means "it i unlikely it can be submitted much before midsummer."
"So, I would estimate that it would be late this year, certainly this fall before Congress can make a final determination of any recommendation that the administration may finally send," Baker said.
In addition to the AWACS, the administration had decided to sell Saudi Arabia fuel tanks enabling to fly longer distances, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and tankers that can refuel planes in midair.
Baker implied yesterday that it is doubtful that any revised sales package would include that complement of weaponry and hardware.
"You could make arragements that relate to the equipment . . . in perhaps a dozen or a hundred different ways," he said.But he said the current package, as "described in the media, would "have a hard time passing in Congress."