The Reagan administration formally notified Congress yesterday that it intends to sell Jordan up to $1.9 billion worth of advanced arms despite strong bipartisan opposition to the sale in both the House and Senate.
Administration officials said the arms package, which includes F16 or F20 fighter planes, surface-to-air missiles and other advanced weaponry, is designed to show support for Jordan's King Hussein, who recently said he would be willing to start peace talks with Israel under certain conditions.
The arms sale puts the administration on a collision course with Congress, where lawmakers in the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-controlled House, reflecting concerns over Israel's security, oppose providing arms to Jordan until direct negotiations with Israel actually have begun.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said during his visit to Washington last week that Israel is willing to begin immediate direct negotiations with Jordan but opposes arms sales to any Arab nation, such as Jordan, that has not formally made peace with Israel.
In the House, more than 225 lawmakers have signed a letter to their colleagues asking for support to block the Jordan arms sale. And 73 senators -- 44 Democrats and 29 Republicans -- have agreed to cosponsor a resolution disapproving the sale.
The law allows an arms deal to go through 30 days after Congress has been notified of it unless Congress passes a resolution to block the sale. President Reagan could veto a joint resolution of disapproval, but it appears at this point that opponents of the arms sale have enough support to override a veto.
Senate GOP leaders, led by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), tried to persuade the administration to delay the arms request, fearing an embarrassing defeat for Reagan and Hussein.
But with the administration determined to go ahead, Lugar has been working on an alternative that would place conditions on the sale, allowing it to proceed only if peace talks with Israel have begun.
"The idea is to come up with something that does not appear to be a flat-out rebuke of Hussein and the peace process. It's apparent that there are enough votes to defeat the arms sale so now the question is, is there a way to word a resolution that would not discourage the peace process," said a Senate official, adding that it was far from certain that such an idea could generate any enthusiasm.
Reagan is scheduled to meet with GOP congressional leaders today and officials said the proposed arms deal and legislative strategy for dealing with it will be discussed.
White House officials acknowledged yesterday that prospects for approval of the sale currently appear dim, but they said the administration has not yet begun an intensive lobbying effort.
In 1981 Reagan was able to overcome strong congressional opposition to the sale of airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia after an all-out lobbying effort that converted enough votes in the Republican Senate to defeat a resolution of disapproval.
Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said yesterday, "I don't think we should go forward with the sale at this time but I wouldn't bet against him Reagan getting it passed."
However, it was unclear whether the administration would be able to mount such an intensive effort this time, since the vote on the arms deal must occur no later than Nov. 20, when Reagan will be meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva.