Despite White House insistence that the murder of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat makes the sale of sophisticated radar planes to Saudi Arabia even more essential, Congress dealt the proposal a severe jolt Oct. 7.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted 28 to 8, with one absent, to block the sale of a $8.5 billion air warfare package -- which includes five Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft (AWACS) -- to the Saudis.
The House vote to block the sale, which came as no surprise to the White House, is expected to be repeated Oct. 15 when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee determines the fate of the deal. President Reagan still is attempting to persuade some 20 senators to cast their votes for the sale and avert a rebuff of the first major foreign policy initiative of his administration.
Yesterday in a last-minute bid to save the AWACS sale, President Reagan invited all 53 Republican members of the Senate to the White House to urge the importance of sending AWACS to Saudi Arabia in the wake of Sadat's death Oct. 6.
The Egyptian leader's murder clearly lent weight to the arguments of House members long-opposed the AWACS deal.
"It seems to me, if anything, the assassination of President Sadat underscores the inherent instability of so many regimes in the region," declared Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D) of New York. Claiming that the chief threat to Saudi Arabia is "internal rather than external, Congressman Solarz said Saudi Arabia is not a "suitable repository" for "our most-sophisticated military equipment." Pointing out that Saudi Arabia had "bitterly opposed" the Camp David agreements and contributed "hundreds of millions of dollars" to the coffers of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the New York Democrat exclaimed that the US had "no obligation whatsoever to provide the Saudis with whatever military equipment they want, whenever they want it."
Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R) of New York said he hoped the proposed sale, which includes 1,777 AIM-6L air-to-air missiles, 202 conformal fuel tanks, and six to eight KC-707 or KC-3 aerial tankers, would be withdrawn.
But in a meeting with reporters Oct. 6, presidential counselor Edwin S. Meese III said that the administration had "no reason" to withdraw the AWACS sale.
He insisted that the death of Sadat indicates no more instability in Saudi Arabia than the recent attempt on President Reagan's life revealed instability in the US. In his view, the death of the Egyptian leader demonstrates "the absolute need not to depend on any one country in the peace process."
Before the Oct. 7 House vote, Rep. Paul R. Findley (R) of Illinois argued that if Mr. Reagan is to provide leadership for the peace process, it is essential for the AWACS sale to proceed. Added Rep. Toby Roth (R) of Wisconsin, "If the President doesn't have the ability to sell five planes, we have a bankrupt foreign policy."
But Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of California declared that "the silence from Saudi Arabia thunders in my ears. I cannot comprehend that after a day and half Saudi Arabia has not yet had the decency to express in moderate terms that a great Arab leader is dead." The congressman said that this was "reason enough to raise doubts about the wisdom of the [AWACS] proposal."
For the sale to be blocked, the Senate must reject it by Oct. 30.