The Reagan administration agreed yesterday to postpone indefinitely a $1.5 billion arms sale to Jordan after being bluntly told by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) that the proposed deal faced overwhelming rejection by the Senate, White House and congressional officials said yesterday.
"The White House had two bad alternatives to the postponement -- withdrawing the sale or having it voted down on the Senate floor," a Lugar spokesman said.
Under terms of a previous congressional action, the sale would have proceeded March 1 unless blocked by Congress. White House political advisers had opposed going through with the sale in an election year but Reagan refused to withdraw it because he feels bound by a promise he made last year to Jordan's King Hussein, sources said.
Reagan insisted last October that the arms sale was "essential to create the conditions for a lasting Middle East peace." The Senate nonetheless postponed the deal until March 1 with a resolution that passed 97 to 1.
Lugar told the White House that a new resolution disapproving the sale would have the support of at least 80 senators and suggested that Reagan avoid this embarrassment by postponing the deal.
"This puts the arms sale in a state of suspended animation," the Lugar spokesman said. "It avoids the embarrassment for the White House of a complete withdrawal and offers a glimmer of hope to Hussein that an arms sale might be approved in the future if the Middle East peace process goes forward."
Senior administration officials acknowledged privately that there did not seem to be much likelihood of reviving the arms sale unless there is dramatic movement in the Middle East toward an accord between Israel and its Arab neighbors. One official said it would take "high-grade oxygen" to revive the deal.
Under terms of the agreement worked out by Lugar and Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, the administration will postpone the sale indefinitely. If the White House decides to go forward with the sale at any time, Congress will have 30 days to accept or reject the proposal.
Senate agreement to accept the face-saving arrangement of a White House postponement rather than withdrawal was important to the administration because of its reliance on Hussein in Middle East peace negotiations.
"We think that the arms sale is justified and needed for Jordan," one senior official said. "We still consider Hussein an important friend."
In the administration, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger had pushed hard for the sale last fall, officials said, and still strongly favored completion of the deal. But White House sources said that even he recognized that it was politically impossible to push the sale through at this time.
White House political aide Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., a former administrative assistant to Lugar, was reported to have strongly opposed the sale. Daniels was said to have taken the position that it would be politically foolish to force Republican senators to vote on the issue in an election year where continued GOP control of the Senate is very much in doubt.
In addition, Reagan was told that opponents of the proposed arms sale had the votes to override a presidential veto. More than 270 House members, in addition to the 80 senators, had pledged to vote for a resolution killing the deal, sources said.
As originally proposed by the White House, the arms package included advanced warplanes, surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weapons and carried a $1.9 billion price tag. The White House withdrew the missiles from the package, lowering its value to $1.5 billion, but Israel continued to oppose the sale as a threat to peace in the Middle East.
The agreement yesterday makes it unlikely that the administration will be able to proceed with another controversial arms deal, the pending sale of $1.1 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia. This proposal would face "the same kind of opposition in Congress and even more of it," one administration official said.