Senate Overrides Sanctions Veto : 78-21 Vote on South Africa Curbs Is Reagan’s Biggest Policy Defeat

Times Staff Writer

The Republican-controlled Senate on Thursday handed President Reagan the biggest policy reversal of his presidency by overriding his veto of sanctions against South Africa.

The 78-21 bipartisan vote, coming on the heels of an override vote in the House earlier this week, means that the sanctions become law despite strong objections raised by the President and retaliation threatened by the Pretoria government.

The override was the culmination of a bitter two-year struggle between Reagan and the Congress over how the United States should express its opposition to South Africa’s system of apartheid, or racial segregation. The action also reflects a growing dissatisfaction in Congress with Reagan’s general stewardship of foreign policy.

‘Architect, Not Czar’

Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.) called it a repudiation of the President’s policy of “constructive engagement” toward South Africa, proving that “while it is true that the President is the architect of foreign policy, he is not the czar of foreign policy.” From the beginning of his presidency, Reagan had said he wanted to work for reforms in South Africa through diplomatic means, not through confrontation and embargoes.

The setback came only nine days before Reagan meets with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Iceland, and the President himself confided to several senators before the vote that he feared the embarrassment of an override would undermine his position in those talks.


After the vote, Reagan expressed his hope that the sanctions will not bring more violence and repression to South Africa. “Now is the time for South Africa’s government to act with courage and good sense to avert a crisis,” he said in a statement.

Congress previously has overridden five Reagan vetoes, but none was of this magnitude. Not since 1973, when Congress overrode President Richard M. Nixon’s veto of the War Powers Act, has an incumbent President suffered as significant a foreign policy reversal in Congress.

Did Not Avert Confrontation

But even when defeat was certain, Reagan took no effective action to back away from the confrontation--as he usually does when caught in a no-win situation. Most members of his party were unpersuaded by his last-minute promise to impose milder sanctions by executive order or by his appointment of a black ambassador to Pretoria.

The vote also was an enormous victory for the beleaguered liberal faction in Congress, which began agitating for sanctions two years ago by participating in protests that led to their arrests outside the South African Embassy here. Many of the nation’s most prominent black leaders, including Coretta Scott King, were in the chamber when the vote was cast.

“I believe today that Martin Luther King’s dream has been advanced,” declared Mrs. King, who called the sanctions a “death blow” to the white minority government of South Africa.

Although the sanctions are much weaker than liberal Democrats originally had sought, the new legislation bans all new U.S. investment in South Africa except in black-owned businesses; bars U.S. imports of iron, steel, coal, uranium, agricultural products and textiles from South Africa; transfers South Africa’s sugar quota to the Philippines; revokes landing rights for South African airliners; prohibits new bank loans to South Africa, and prohibits exports of oil or nuclear technology to South Africa, or computers to its military or police agencies. Many of these provisions will take effect immediately.

After a year, if the President determines that no substantial progress has been made in dismantling apartheid, he would be required to take additional steps, including barring South Africans from depositing money in U.S. banks, banning importation of diamonds and strategic minerals from South Africa and halting military aid to any country such as Israel that is believed to be violating the U.N. embargo on arms shipments to Pretoria.

There was considerable disagreement in Congress about how much economic damage these sanctions might cause. Some congressional sources estimated that the bill could affect as much as $3.6 billion in foreign exchange a year. Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) set the cost in commodities alone at closer to $350 million.

Some legal scholars contend that the federal law preempts state and local measures, such as California’s landmark disinvestment statute signed last week by Gov. George Deukmejian. The issue is expected to be tested in the courts.

The economic impact could be compounded by South Africa’s threat to retaliate by cutting off U.S. grain purchases, hurting America’s already ailing farm sector. But Agriculture Department figures show that South Africa accounts for less than 2% of U.S. farm exports.

The U.S. package of sanctions clearly is more stringent than any yet imposed by other governments, including those of the European Communities, the Commonwealth nations, Australia, Canada, Japan and several African countries.

Thirty-one Republicans joined all 47 Democrats in voting for the override--a clear indication of how deeply the issue of South Africa has divided the Republican Party. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a longtime Reagan supporter, was credited by the liberals with masterminding the President’s defeat--putting him personally at odds with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), as well as the White House.

In an emotional plea to party loyalty on the part of other Republicans, Dole characterized it as a “feel-good” vote that would undercut Reagan’s ability to conduct foreign policy. “We cut the ground out from the President of the United States,” he said.

Like Reagan, conservatives argued that the sanctions would only cause more hardship in South Africa. “We have separated South Africa, maybe forever, into a black camp and a white camp with no place for moderates,” Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) said.

But Lugar strongly rejected their argument, saying: “We’re not destroying that government. That government is self-destructing. We’re saying: ‘Wake up!’ ”

Although Reagan met with stiff criticism from Dole and other Republicans for failing to act sooner in a way that would develop a consensus with Congress, the President made a strenuous last-minute lobbying offensive that included the usual personal telephone calls to key fence-sitters. While he got only 21 votes, at least five other senators were said to have pledged to support him--but only if their votes were needed to put him over the top.

It takes a two-thirds vote of those present in both chambers to override a presidential veto. In the Senate, Reagan needed 34 votes to prevail--even though Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) was still in his home state recuperating from surgery. The House override vote was 313 to 83.