Senate opponents of the administration's proposal to sell 1,600 Maverick antitank missiles to Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that they have gained enough votes to block the sale and called on the administration to abandon it.

Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) said he now has 67 supporters for a resolution of disapproval of the sale, the two-thirds of the Senate necessary to override a potential presidential veto of a disapproval resolution.

"It's time for the administration to withdraw the proposal and to encourage the Saudis to work towards peace in the Middle East rather than destruction," Packwood said.

The announcement was made after the State Department's strongest endorsement of Saudi Arabia since congressional critics began assailing the desert kingdom for failing to intercept the Iraqi jet that attacked the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf on May 17. The endorsement praised Saudi Arabia as a "rational and dependable security partner" of the United States.

Saudi behavior during the Stark attack as well as the kingdom's reported hesitance to provide further military assistance to the United States in the gulf have become stumbling blocks to congressional approval of the $360 million Maverick arms sale.

Opponents of the sale yesterday also attacked Saudi Arabia for failing to provide enough support to the Middle East peace process and for financing Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) with a $90 million annual contribution.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy said he was "surprised" by the "strong negative congressional reaction" to the sale and sought to "set the record straight" regarding Saudi behavior during the Stark attack.

Murphy insisted that the Saudis had acted "in accordance with a longstanding informal arrangement" in scrambling their F15s to protect Saudi airspace and provide protection for the U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that monitored the incident.

Proper procedures were followed by Saudi controllers on board the AWACS and at the Dhahran air base when they sought authority from the Saudi government to intercept the Iraqi plane, Murphy said, but there was too little time to get a decision. "In sum, the Saudi reaction to the Stark tragedy was both prompt and prudent, important attributes in the volatile gulf," he said.

The Saudi behavior showed "the strength and effectiveness of the Saudi command and control system" about which Congress had shown concern in the past, Murphy said. "During the May 17 attack, the Saudis behaved as rational and dependable security partners and friends," he added.

Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) said he had "serious doubts" that the Saudis are willing to help the United States defend 11 Kuwaiti tankers that are being reregistered as U.S. ships. In explaining his opposition to the Maverick sale, Pell said he has seen no indication that the Saudis are willing to offer U.S. planes access to Saudi air bases.

Murphy hinted strongly, however, that the Saudis have now given the administration assurances that they are prepared to provide additional military assistance to the United States.

He refused to provide details in public session. But Murphy said that when the administration reports shortly on its arrangements for protecting the Kuwaiti tankers, "I think you will find these {commitments} are now not just words of support but deeds of support."

Meanwhile, national security adviser Frank C. Carlucci was also pressed yesterday in Venice to explain whether and how West European nations and Japan will help the United States in the Persian Gulf.

Carlucci said Japan and West Germany are forbidden by their constitutions to deploy forces in the gulf but that "substantial progress" was being made in bilateral discussions with other Western allies on "the kind of coordination and support" they are willing to provide to the United States in the gulf.