WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration, facing severe opposition in Congress, retreated Thursday from its plan to move for quick approval of a proposed sale of F-15 warplanes to Saudi Arabia.
Administration officials said the sale was strongly opposed even before the Iraqi attack Sunday on the U.S. guided-missile frigate Stark that killed 37 sailors and the disclosure that the Saudi air force had failed to respond to a U.S. request to intercept the attacking Iraqi jet.
Even as the White House on Wednesday was asserting its plan to press ahead with the sale, opposition was growing on Capitol Hill, although Pentagon spokesman Robert Sims denied that the Saudi role in the Stark incident led to the decision to delay.
At the White House, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said: "There is no timetable for the notification to Congress on the sale of the planes to Saudi Arabia. Yesterday (Wednesday) I said the notification would go ahead next week. And it probably will not go ahead next week."
Fitzwater, insisting that the sale is "very important" to the Administration, said, "We want to move this proposal to (Capitol) Hill at the most propitious time to get its passage."
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who had not decided last week whether he would support the sale, said, "Today, I would vote against it."
Although an aide said that Byrd had not polled his fellow Democrats, the senator said: "It would have had a rough ride in any case. It will be even tougher in light of recent events. The fact that we did not get the help from the Saudis we needed--that would have helped so much at a critical moment--is not going to help get votes."
The sale had been the subject of informal discussion with members of Congress since February. But, as word of the proposal began to leak earlier this month, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee passed a resolution at its convention here opposing it and started lobbying activities on Capitol Hill.
At the same time, it was disclosed at the congressional hearings on the Iran- contra scandal that King Fahd of Saudi Arabia had doubled his monthly contribution to the Nicaraguan rebels to $2 million after meeting with President Reagan. This disclosure led some members of Congress to advise the Administration to delay submitting its notice of the F-15 sale.
And, one official said, the Saudi failure to meet the U.S. request to intercept the Iraqi Mirage F-1 jet that attacked the Stark was "just gravy for those who want to kill" the F-15 sale.
$500-Million Price Tag
While Administration officials would not say when Reagan would send Congress notification of the planned sale, McDonnell Douglas Corp., the manufacturer, is completing production of F-15 fighters similar to the model the Saudis would buy.
Under the Administration plan, Saudi Arabia would be sold about six replacements for the fleet of 60 F-15s it purchased in 1978. The new aircraft would cost a total of about $500 million.
Once Congress is notified of an Administration's plan to sell weapons, it has 50 days to vote any disapproval.
Meanwhile, Byrd and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) sponsored a Senate resolution, approved 91 to 5, calling on Reagan to report on the threat to U.S. ships in the gulf, the rules and procedures under which they can defend themselves and the role of European allies in defending vital sea lanes there.
U.S. Air Cover Proposed
In addition, Byrd advocated the use of an "air cover," flown with the assistance of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, to protect shipping in the vicinity.
"Air cover provides a layer of protection for our warships that can deter or, if deterrence fails, interdict hostile activity directed at our ships and the ships of our allies and friends," he said. "Certainly, it would be desirable to have land-based air arrangements with Saudi Arabia and other gulf states if we're going to protect other ships and our own ships."
The protection would be given to U.S. ships--including the 11 Kuwaiti vessels scheduled to be operated under U.S. flags--as they ply the gulf, where Iraq and Iran, at war with each other for 6 1/2 years, have attacked merchant ships carrying each other's petroleum and supplies.