Senate Republican leaders, seeking to avert an embarrassing rejection of the Reagan administration's proposed arms sale to Jordan, reached agreement with opponents of the sale yesterday on a face-saving formula to delay action on the matter until next year.
The agreement, embodied in a resolution the Senate is expected to approve today, rules out any sale of advanced arms to Jordan between now and March 1 unless "direct and meaningful peace negotiations between Israel and Jordan" begin before then.
White House officials said yesterday that President Reagan, in New York for the 40th anniversary of the United Nations, had reluctantly agreed to the delay.
"We're not endorsing or supporting it, but if both houses approve it and send it over, we would probably sign it," a top White House aide said.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said, when asked about the resolution, "We are continuing to work with Congress on it" and refused to comment further.
House opponents of the sale, led by Rep. Larry Smith (D-Fla.), said yesterday they are looking at the Senate proposal but will still introduce a resolution of outright rejection of the sale today. The resolution has been cosponsored by at least 260 lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who hammered out yesterday's agreement with leading opponents of the arms sale, said he made it clear to the administration that it faced a choice of accepting the compromise or seeing the Senate reject the sale.
Ignoring warnings that he faced overwhelming bipartisan opposition on the issue, Reagan formally notified Congress on Monday of his intention to sell up to $1.9 billion in advanced weapons to Jordan, including F16 or F20 jet aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. Under the law, the sale would go forward unless Congress disapproved it within 30 days.
In the Senate, opponents immediately introduced a resolution of disapproval cosponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), John Heinz (R-Pa.) and 72 others. In the face of this opposition, a suggestion that rejection of the arms sale be softened by limiting it to the next four months quickly gained support. Lugar initially sought to have the Foreign Relations Committee consider the issue next week, but that approach was blocked when Kennedy and other opponents threatened to seek immediate approval of their resolution.
Kennedy said he will support the Lugar resolution delaying the sale until at least March 1 when it comes before the Senate today.
"My sense is that we have derailed the administration proposal for this arms sale and achieved everything we wanted to," he said.
The original resolution introduced by the 74 opponents also tied approval of the arms package to the beginning of "direct, bilateral negotiations between Jordan and Israel." The Lugar proposal differs little from this except for the March 1 date, leaving open the question of what will happen then if negotiations have not begun.
In backing the delay, Lugar said he was concerned that an overwhelming congressional vote to reject the sale now would have a negative impact on the Middle East peace process. He noted that a speech to the United Nations earlier this week by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has been hailed by Reagan administration spokesmen as an important contribution toward breaking the deadlock over peace talks between Israel and Jordan.
Lugar acknowledged that the Senate resolution did not address the issue of what happens if Israeli-Jordanian negotiations are not under way by March 1. But he said that opponents of the sale will have numerous means to block it then, including a new resolution permanently rejecting the sale or refusal to appropriate the funds Jordan will need to pay for the weapons.