Reagan Strives to Retain Votes on Sale to Saudis

Times Staff Writer

President Reagan, fighting to preserve a narrow vote margin on Capitol Hill, warned congressional leaders Tuesday that if the Senate overrides his veto and blocks a controversial arms sale to Saudi Arabia, “it will seriously undermine our foreign policy objectives” in the Middle East.

The President needs 34 votes to sustain his veto of an earlier Senate action rejecting the weapons sale. White House officials said they have collected commitments from exactly 34 senators and cannot afford to lose a single vote.

Lack of Breathing Room

“That’s not what you call very good breathing room,” presidential assistant Dennis Thomas said. “When you’ve got a margin of error as close as that . . . you don’t know who’s going to have a scheduling problem or a last-minute concern.”


Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) emerged from a morning White House meeting of the President and Republican senators to declare that he is “fairly confident” that Reagan will prevail in the vote, which is scheduled for Thursday.

“The President’s leadership is on the line, particularly as far as Republicans are concerned,” Dole told reporters. “We’re running around the country praising him for his leadership qualities and his 68% popularity rating. If we really believe what we say, we ought to be voting with him on a critical issue like this.”

‘I’m Counting on You’

Although the Republicans are the majority party in the Senate by a 53-47 edge, many GOP loyalists have bolted on the issue of the arms for Saudi Arabia. Reagan, fully aware of the staunch opposition he is facing, told the Republican senators, “I’m counting on you in the Senate for your support.”


Reporters and photographers were invited to record the opening of Reagan’s meeting with the senators, a step designed to give his impassioned appeal greater political impact.

Calling the sale “indispensable to the execution of our foreign policy,” the President argued that it is essential to U.S. policy in the Middle East to maintain strong ties with moderate Arab nations like Saudi Arabia.

Reagan stressed that the United States has had a mutual security pact with Saudi Arabia for 40 years and that the arms delivery is a symbol of American commitment and credibility in the region.

“I want all of you to understand that this vote will have a profound effect upon our relations with the Arab world, not just with Saudi Arabia,” he said.


White House spokesman Edward P. Djerejian called the sale “a very important national security interest” and predicted a negative effect on “our relationship as a superpower with the Soviet Union if we are no longer seen as a reliable partner to our friends in the Middle East.”

Djerejian said that failure to deliver on the arms package to Saudi Arabia would “provide the Soviets with opportunities to exploit in the Middle East.” Such a failure would produce a “target of opportunity” for the Soviets, he added, pointing out that Moscow was able to sell arms to Jordan for the first time several years ago “because, quite frankly, we were not able to do so.”

Not Enough Votes

The example to which Djerejian referred happened before Reagan took office in 1980. But, earlier this year, Reagan was forced to withdraw a proposal to sell arms to Jordan when it became obvious that he could not draw the necessary votes.


Djerejian’s argument, however, is weakened somewhat by the fact that the Soviet Union does not have diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and would be an unlikely supplier of arms to the moderate Arab nation.