The Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday narrowly passed a resolution disapproving the administration's proposed $75 million sale of 12 F5 military jet aircraft to Honduras.
The 10-to-9 vote, along party lines, left in doubt whether Democratic supporters of the resolution could muster a majority for it on the Senate floor, let alone the two-thirds vote that would be necessary to overrride an almost certain presidential veto.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), the resolution's sponsor, predicted a close vote, but said he was "not optimistic" because he doubts all Senate Democrats will support the disapproval.
The administration notified Congress of the planned sale May 12, after the committee voted to bar use of U.S. aid to Honduras for the purchase of 10 F5E single-seat fighters and two F5F two-seat trainer aircraft. It was an apparent attempt to force the issue. Congress has 30 days to register disapproval.
The committee vote came after administration witnesses failed to persuade skeptical Democrats that introduction of the U.S. warplanes will not lead to an escalation in the arms race in Central America and that the United States could not provide a less-sophisticated aircraft.
William G. Walker, deputy assistant secretary of state, also sought to convince the committee that supplying F5s to Honduras would not prompt Cuba or the Soviet Union to send MiG jet fighters to the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua.
"Although the Sandinistas have indicated that they might respond to introduction of F5s by seeking MiG aircraft from their Soviet sponsor, we believe this is bluster," Walker said. "We have seen no indication of new preparations to introduce MiG aircraft.
"Indeed, there is every indication that the Soviets are taking our warning against the introduction of advanced jet aircraft seriously," he said.
Walker argued that there was "an essential equivalence" between Honduras' aging French-built Super Mystere warplanes and the newer F5E, a contention sharply disputed by Dodd and other committee Democrats. Walker also said the new American aircraft were needed as a "nonescalatory demonstration" of U.S. commitment to Central American democracies.
The State Department official said Guatemala and Costa Rica had expressed no opposition to the sale and that El Salvador, Honduras' traditional main rival, had also indicated it was not opposed.
Dodd and other committee Democrats warned that the administration was "ratcheting up" the level of sophistication of arms in the region by introducing the F5E and questioned whether it was the right plane to cope with the probable military threat from Nicaragua.
Gen. Philip C. Gast, director of the Pentagon's Defense Security Assistance Agency, said Honduras had rejected the earlier U.S. proposal to buy the less-sophisticated F5A or B and that other possible American aircraft that might be provided were either too costly for the Hondurans or not available.