Washington — Dusting itself off after a defeat in the House of Representatives, the Reagan administration is battling to maintain foreign and domestic credibility by delivering airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes to Saudi Arabia.
The House rejected the AWACS deal, as expected, after four hours of debate. The 301 to 111 vote was a bit less than the 3 to 1 majority predicted by opponents earlier. Of the opponents, 108 were Republicans. As the House voted, the administration ordered two US Air Force AWACS planes to Egypt, bringing the total of US-operated AWACS in the Mideast to six (four are operating in Saudi Arabia).
The planes have become a symbol to the White House. At a critical time of reappraisal in the Middle East, the US role is being watched, the administration feels. Does it have the ability to carry through its pledges to a friendly state, Saudi Arabia?
Simultaneously, President Reagan's first foreign policy challenge from Congress has become a question of who speaks for Washington on foreign affairs, the President or Congress?
Because the rejection of the AWACS deal by the House was a foregone conclusion, the real struggle has been in the Senate. The $8.5 billion scale, including five sophisticated surveillance planes for the Saudis, goes into effect unless both houses veto. By its veto, the Senate will decide.
Mr. Reagan, backed by former Presidents Carter, Ford, and Nixon, has altered the emphasis in his plea to the Senate in an uphill battle. It is no longer merely a question of the technical military factors, he declares, but of giving the President a firm voice in a time of Middle East crisis. The assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat has thrown everything in doubt, it is argued, including the Camp David Egyptian-Israeli agreement.
"I could make a good argument either way," said Jimmy Carter here Oct. 14, discussing the AWACS deal on his three-day visit. "But the point I make is that , once the President of the United States makes a commitment then, if it is a close call, the Congress should support him."
The other side of the argument is that Sadat's absence emphasizes the chaos of Middle East affairs and the danger to Israel of the plane transfer. Said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the House Near East subcommittee, opening Wednesday's debate in the House, the deal may "fuel, not dampen, the spiraling Middle East arms race."
There has been a tendency to think that the adminsitration is making some headway in the crucial Senate battle. It argues that, right or wrong, the US is committed to the deal and that the whole Camp David process may ride on it. Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (r) of Tennessee says that the fight will be won or lost on the Senate floor and estimates opponents now have no more than 45 to 47 votes. They need 51 to kill it. A spokesman from the opponents' side puts the current veto total at 55.
"There are enough undecided senators on the committee for it to come out in an unpredictable way," declared Sen. Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at a Washington press conference Oct. 14. His committee is scheduled to vote on the AWACS issue today. He indicated that some committee members are still weighing the matter and may not make a decision until the vote comes.
If both houses turn down the AWACS package, the President still can proceed with the sale under a provision of the Arms Export Control Act of 1980 -- if the President declared the sale in the national security interest of the United States. But Senator Percy said that he doubts Reagan would take that course, stressing the President's desire to maintain the "closest possible relations" with Congress.
Declaring his support for the Saudi arms package, Percy said that " a defeat of the AWACS sale would . . . deal a devastating blow to the power and prestige of the presidency. It would cast doubt on the ability of the United States to conduct its foreign policy. All living former presidents have expressed this concern, and all of them support the sale."
Presidetn Reagan is keeping his eye on the upcoming Senate vote. He continued seeing senators at the White House, planned to make a foreign policy address and prepared a note to Congress on the situation. As Senator Baker hopefully declared, "We continue to make progress. We have more [votes] than we had Friday."