Senate and House opponents of the administration's proposed sale of 1,600 Maverick antitank missiles to Saudi Arabia introduced resolutions of disapproval yesterday amid strong indications that they will probably gain enough votes to override even a presidential veto and kill the $360 million arms package.
Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), the resolution's chief sponsor with Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), cited as one reason for his opposition to the sale the Saudi failure to intercept the Iraqi warplane that attacked the USS Stark last month in the Persian Gulf. This appeared to be one main cause for immediate strong congressional opposition to the sale. Packwood began with 28 cosponsors of his resolution, but by the end of the day the total had risen to 51; 67 votes would be needed to override a White House veto.
In the House, Rep. Lawrence J. Smith (D-Fla.) and Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.) introduced a similar revolution with "about 100" cosponsors.
Packwood called the Maverick sale "the nose of the camel in the tent" to be followed by administration proposals to sell the Saudis additional F15 aircraft and parts for their U.S.-made tanks.
Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and several other senators met yesterday with Secretary of State George P. Shultz to discuss the proposed sale. Later, Dole said Shultz did a good job presenting the administration's case for the sale but added, "I don't think he won many converts."
Dole said the administration had "just added fuel to the fire" by seeking to sidestep the normal requirement for a 20-day period of informal notification prior to the 30-day process of formal notice which began last Friday.
The administration contends that since Congress approved in 1984 the sale of a similar number of an earlier model of Maverick which was never delivered, only formal notification of the newer "substitute" model is now necessary.
Senate and House sponsors appeared confident they would obtain the necessary two-thirds vote to kill the sale because of the Stark incident and reports the Saudis are reluctant to provide landing rights to U.S. warplanes that could become involved in protecting Kuwaiti oil tankers.
A State Department spokesman acknowledged that the timimg of the administration's request was not good but said "there is never a propitious time" for arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
He denied that the timimg of the request was related Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger's meeting today with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Sultan, in Nice, France, to discuss the gulf situation and a possible request for landing rights for U.S. aircraft. Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.