Senate Republican leaders urged President Reagan yesterday to join them in a maneuver that would postpone a key vote on a controversial $354 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia until after the Memorial Day congressional recess.
A White House official said late yesterday that the president "probably" will heed the advice of Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and delay his veto of a congressional resolution disapproving the sale until midday Wednesday. This would mean the Senate could not vote on a veto override before June 2, when Congress returns from its recess.
"A quick vote would not favor the president," Lugar said at a luncheon meeting with reporters. "We need a longer dialogue."
A Lugar spokesman said the senator made the same point later in the day in an hour-long meeting with Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Dole also cautioned against rushing the override vote, complaining that the issue had become entangled with "an awful lot of politics," including the 1986 elections.
Dole and White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the administration lacked the 34 votes needed to sustain a veto if all senators were present and voting. White House and congressional sources said the president was six or seven votes short on the issue, which has become a political test of administration foreign policy in the Middle East.
Reagan will meet today with 35 Jewish leaders in the White House in an attempt to gain at least their neutrality on the issue. The administration's position is that Saudi Arabia has kept its word not to use U.S. weapons against Israel and that approval of the sale is necessary to maintain good U.S. relations with moderate Arab states. Reagan contends that Israel also stands to gain if moderate Arab states have friendly relations with the United States.
Lugar said that campaign contributions from supporters of Israel "are a substantial factor" in the reluctance of senators of both parties to consider the administration's arguments. He said he would not call it "intimidation," as a reporter had, but said that senators regard the supporters of Israel as "one of those constituencies that can cause you a problem if they get activated, so you avoid making an issue [with them] if you can."
A White House official said the attempt to sustain a veto also faced other obstacles. He said some senators who normally would back the sale were upset by Saudi support for Libya after the April 15 U.S. bombing raid on the headquarters of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. In addition, he said, senators from oil-producing states in the Southwest opposed helping the Saudis.
In rejecting the proposed sale, the House and Senate both produced margins that would be sufficient to override. The vote was 356 to 62 in the House and 73 to 22 in the Senate.
On another regional issue, Speakes reiterated the U.S. view that Syria is still harboring suspected Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal and called for the ouster of him and his supporters. In an interview with The Washington Post, Syrian President Hafez Assad said Abu Nidal was not in Syria and had only a cultural and political office there.
"As long as terrorists move freely within Syria and within Syrian-controlled territory in Lebanon, our serious concern remains for Syria's support for international terrorism," Speakes said. "We believe Syria should rid itself of Abu Nidal and his organization. Syria remains on our terrorist list."