A little known Senate rule could enable former President Jimmy Carter to influence the verdict on the AWACS decision -- from within the chamber of Congress that will determine the outcome of the struggle.
Presidents deliver an annual state of the union speech, required by the Constitution, to a joint session of Congress. They also go before joint sessions on special occasions as when, for example, Franklin Roosevelt denounced japan after Pearl Harbor.
Only two presidents, however, have addressed the Senate alone while in office: George Washington on March 4, 1793, and Richard Nixon on Nov. 13, 1969.
It wasn't a happy occasion for George Washington: the senators treated him so familiarly that he didn't go back. That set a pattern, authorities declare.
In recent years, though, the Senate has heard two former presidents, employing the little known "Rule 19." It amounts to a standing invitation by the Senate to any ex-president who happens to be in town and has something to say. The Senate heard Harry Truman on April 18, 1955, and Gerald Ford on Nov. 21, 1980.
Mr. Carter plans to be in the capital next week, though his visit may be deferred by attendance at the Sadat funeral.
He is believed to favor the AWACS sale -- which can be seen as an extension of the Carter administration's policy. The US began operating four of the surveillance planes in northern Saudi Arabia last October when the fighting between Iran and Iraq broke out. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. has recently told Congress that the planes have monitored the Iranian attack from the start of the war.
Mr. Carter's comment could be a decisive factor in the wavering balance in Congress. And rarely has a defeated President had such power to befriend his successor in the White House.
The Reagan administration last week assembled a group of top foreign affairs officials, including those from the Carter Administration, who support the $8.5 billion arms deal.
The Sadat assassination has shaken Congress in the AWACS sale but it is too soon to say which side has benefited. President Reagan sent the program to Congress Oct. 1 where the House, under strong Israeli pressure, is expected to reject it. but the Senate must follow suit if the sale is to be stopped.
That is where Jimmy Carter could play an important role. Under the Senate rule, "former presidents are entitled to the privilege of the floor," Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, present majority leader, told the Senate when he welcomed Mr. Ford last November. He said the former President's remarks , "will have a great special place in the annals of the Senate. I regret only that the occasions have been so rare. I hope that President Ford's presence here today will be the harbinger of a new tradition of presidential visits to this chamber."
As it happened, Mr. Ford said little of substance. But that is no reason Mr. Carter shouldn't. The invitation is there and the tradition ready to set.