WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dividing strictly on party lines, voted 10 to 9 Tuesday to block the Reagan Administration's proposed sale of a dozen Northrop F-5E fighter planes to Honduras.
To stop the sale, the Senate and House would have to adopt resolutions of disapproval within 30 days of the May 12 White House announcement of intention to sell the supersonic fighters for $75 million. The full House has taken no action, but the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on hemispheric affairs has scheduled a hearing on the matter today.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), sponsor of the Senate resolution, said during committee debate that the F-5E, which is designed to engage in battles with other aircraft, is the wrong type of plane for the Hondurans. Instead, he said, they should have an attack plane that can be used against ground forces.
Dodd said that the sale almost certainly would launch a regional arms race, starting with demands for the same warplane by El Salvador and Guatemala. Even worse, Dodd said, the supply of fighters to Honduras could be used as justification by the Soviet Union to supply modern jet fighters to the leftist Nicaraguan government.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) immediately challenged Dodd's assertion, saying that Presidents Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador and Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo of Guatemala have publicly stated that they would not ask for F-5Es to match Honduras' force.
Helms, wagering that Dodd is wrong, slapped a quarter on the table before him and said, "I'm not a betting man, but. . . . "
"There's a lot more than a quarter at stake, and someday maybe you'll realize it," Dodd retorted, his face reddening. "You're determined to get us in a conflict, (and) putting quarters on the table doesn't cut it, Jesse."
Helms asserted that the issue is "communist versus anti-communist" and requires that Congress support the Honduran request. Otherwise, he said, "We can sit back and be a bunch of patsies for the Sandinistas."
William G. Walker, deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, said that Nicaraguan troops outnumber Honduran ground forces by 76,000 to 16,750. Honduras tried to overcome that imbalance with 13 subsonic French Super-Mysteres, but those planes are now obsolete, he said.
In addition, Walker said, Nicaragua recently acquired 10 Soviet attack helicopters, 110 tanks and 350 ground-to-air missiles.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee previously banned the use of foreign aid funds to buy F-5Es for Honduras in the foreign aid authorization bill for fiscal 1987.