Saudi Arms OKd by 1 Vote in Senate : Foes Needed Two-Thirds Majority to Override Veto in $265-Million Sale
The Republican-controlled Senate, bowing to intense pressure from President Reagan, cleared the way Thursday for the sale of $265 million in missiles to Saudi Arabia, even though a majority voted against it.
The 66-34 margin fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed by opponents to block the sale. It was the narrowest possible margin by which Reagan could obtain congressional approval of the sale and amounted to a face-saving victory rather than a vote of confidence for the President’s Middle East policy.
Both the House and Senate previously had rejected the sale by more than two-thirds majorities, and Reagan had no hope of cutting the overwhelming vote margin against him in the Democratic-controlled House.
The President has the authority to sell arms to foreign nations unless Congress passes a bill disapproving the sale. He can then veto the legislation and Congress must muster a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override the veto and stop the sale.
Four Vetoes Overridden
Of 47 vetoes during Reagan’s tenure, only four have been overridden.
Clearly relieved by the Senate’s failure to override, Reagan told Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in a telephone call after the vote that it had made him “one happy man.”
“The President has once again established his ability to prevail on these close questions of foreign policy,” said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who led opposition to the sale, said that the outcome amounted to a repudiation of the President’s Mideast policy. He estimated that Reagan was forced to trim the arms package by about 90% to force it through Congress--and only by the barest margin.
“The policy has been thoroughly discredited,” he said. “Congress has insisted on re-examination of the goals which drive our arms sales efforts and a rededication to principles more in keeping with America’s national interests.”
Cranston and other opponents of the sale accused Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism and failing to help advance the Middle East peace process. Although the Israeli lobby was officially neutral on the sale, it was widely viewed as a potential election year issue with Jewish voters.
To capitalize on the terrorist threat, Cranston displayed on the Senate floor what he said were photos of U.S. arms purchased by the Saudis that wound up in Lebanon.
Administration officials originally had contemplated a multi-billion-dollar sale to Saudi Arabia, but the package was trimmed to $354 million even before it was introduced, in an unsuccessful effort to avert congressional opposition. After it was voted down initially in the House and Senate, Reagan then agreed to drop 800 Stinger surface-to-air missiles from the proposal--further reducing the package to $265 million.
Although the final package contained little more than 100 Harpoon air-to-ship missiles and 1,666 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, Reagan mounted a formidable lobbying drive before Thursday’s vote, arguing that the sale was crucial to the U.S. role in the Middle East.
“American influence in the region is absolutely vital to world peace,” he told 75 senators who accepted his invitation for breakfast at the White House earlier Thursday. “And, to exercise this influence, we must retain the trust of moderate Arab nations for the sak1696624486security in this vital region--indeed, for the sake of world peace itself, I ask you to permit this arms sale to go forward.”
Dole, in a floor speech calling for party loyalty on the issue, reminded renegade Republicans that they owed their control of the Senate to Reagan’s election sweep in 1980. “It is a test of the President’s leadership,” he said.
Last month, the Senate had rejected the Saudi sale by a vote of 73 to 22--forcing the President to find 12 additional votes to deprive his opponents of a two-thirds majority with all members present. In the House, it had lost by a vote of 356 to 62.
8 Switched Votes
Eight senators who originally voted against the sale, including two Democrats, switched their votes to support the President on Thursday. They were joined by four others who were absent during the last vote.
The deciding vote was cast by Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.), who held out until the last minute. He later explained that he switched because the President had removed the Stingers from the package.
Sen. J. James Exon of Nebraska, one of the Democratic swing votes, said he changed his position because Congress, with its earlier votes, already had succeeded in sending a signal to the Saudis that they need to become more involved in the Middle East peace process. He said he wanted to support Reagan’s right to conduct foreign policy.
“Today we have the President of the United States and the leader of the Free World laying his national and international prestige on the line,” Exon said. “That makes this a considerably different proposition in the view of this senator.”
Wilson Opposes Sale
Pete Wilson, California’s Republican senator, voted against the sale. Aides said Wilson was lobbied heavily by White House officials but chose not to go against the sentiments of his Jewish constituents in California.
Lugar said the President’s vote-getting ability was hampered by the coming November election, maintaining that many Republicans feared that a vote in favor of the sale would cost them their seats. Of 18 Republicans seeking reelection, only four voted with Reagan.
Not only did the President invite senators to the White House for breakfast, he also met personally with many. And Reagan’s cause was joined by former President Jimmy Carter, who lobbied on his behalf.
“The President is not quite as good as Lyndon Johnson at twisting arms, but he’s very good,” Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said as he was leaving the White House on Thursday. When asked what Byrd meant, White House spokesman Larry Speakes joked 1952997748arm-twisting from Johnson’s.
“We don’t twist it up behind the head,” Speakes said.
Although some members of Congress are threatening to block a coming transfer of airborne warning and control systems radar surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, Cranston said he would not take a leading role in that effort. The AWACS sale, approved by Congress in 1981, is not scheduled to be completed until later this month.
California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), who led opposition to the Saudi missile sale in the House, said that the AWACS transfer would be even harder to block.
“It’s very difficult to revisit an issue that has been fought and lost before,” he said.
But Levine said he is drafting legislation that would make it easier for a majority of members of Congress to block any arms sale.