WASHINGTON -- The Senate vote this week on a proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia has been cast by the chamber's Republican leaders as a critical ruling on a fundamental issue -- President Reagan's ability to control foreign policy.
'This has become a struggle between the president and the Democrats in the Senate,' GOP leader Robert Dole said. 'I'm not sure that is the way foreign policy should be made.'
But Democrats say the fight over the arms deal does not break along neat political lines. Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., noted last week that 29 GOP senators joined 44 Democrats last month when the Senate voted down the $354 million sale to the Arab kingdom.
The United States sells ships, planes, arms and other military equipment to foreign nations -- deals that generally arouse no opposition in Congress. But lawmakers may block an arms sale, for any reason, by passing a resolution of disapproval.
That resolution goes to the White House like any other legislation and is subject to a veto, which Congress can try to override.
Reagan originally wanted to sell the Saudis more than $1 billion in missiles, helicopters and equipment for U.S.-made F-15 fighters but Israel and Congress balked.
Reagan then excluded everything but missiles already in the Saudi arsenal, satisfying Israel's security concerns, and notified Congress of the proposed sale, which totaled $354 million.
But a frustrated Congress, blaming the Saudis for the stalled Middle East peace process, overwhelmingly passed resolutions disapproving the request.
To salvage the package, Reagan withdrew its most controversial weapon -- hand-held Stinger anti-aircraft missiles worth $89 million.
Critics said the Stingers could fall into the hands of terrorists, but the administration said the Saudis have a perfect record of security for U.S.-supplied weapons.
Reagan vetoed the resolution on May 22. Dole was ready to call for a vote that day, knowing he could uphold the veto because many Democrats already had left town for the holiday recess.
But Democratic leaders threatened a stalemating filibuster so Dole reluctantly put off the vote until after the recess, scheduling it for Thursday.
A Senate Democratic leadership source predicted Reagan would win the showdown by one vote.
Even if the Senate upholds the veto, permitting the sale to go through, it may be a small victory for the president, foreshadowing as it does more bruising battles with a Congress growing more assertive in dealing with arms control, Middle East policy, Nicaragua and other issues.
Dole and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Reagan's ability to be a major force in a Middle East peace settlement will be crippled if he cannot deliver on a reduced arms package to what they call a moderate Arab state.
Reagan used the same argument on American Jewish leaders -- that the Saudis are promoting peace in the Middle East and defending the region's oil resources against attack by Iran -- with no apparent gain.
Rejection of the sale also would 'damage our vital strategic, political and economic interests in the Middle East and undermine our balanced policy in that region,' Reagan said.