WASHINGTON -- President Bush offered Congress a package of assurances yesterday intended to sweeten his proposal that the lawmakers put off until early next year action on a $10 billion loan guarantee program to help Israel build housing for Soviet immigrants.
At an early morning meeting with key members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mr. Bush promised that if Congress agreed to the delay, he would strongly support the loan program in January. He also said he would seek no further postponement whether or not progress had been made on the Middle East peace conference the president wants to ensure.
Further, Mr. Bush pledged that if the delay wound up costing Israel money, the administration would support an effort to make up for that expense in the package that is ultimately approved. He also promised to mount an effort to solicit aid for Israel from other countries.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, and two leading members, Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Robert W. Kasten, R-Wis., agreed to take no action on the Israel loan program for at least two weeks.
In the meantime, Secretary of State James A. Baker III hopes to resolve the matter in meetings next week with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, according to a senior administration official.
The official said the package Mr. Bush presented to lawmakers yesterday was drawn up by Mr. Baker primarily for the benefit of Mr. Shamir, whose acquiescence in the delay would quiet congressional concerns.
But it seemed unlikely yesterday that Mr. Bush's package alone would serve as the basis for a compromise.
"He wants a 120-day delay and says he won't ask then for another delay. What kind of compromise is this?" said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., one of Israel's more vocal supporters on Capitol Hill. "This discussion is by no means ended."
Mr. Bush wants to delay consideration of the Israeli aid request because of his belief that it might upset the delicate negotiations now under way that are aimed at bringing Israel and its Arab neighbors together at a peace conference in October.
Israel says the absorption money would not be used for settlements in the occupied territories, but Mr. Bush isn't sure the Arab nations will accept those assertions.
"We think it's well within the prerogative of the president to determine the timing for consideration of this issue," the senior official said. "All we're asking Congress is to give him the benefit of the doubt on this."
But Mr. Lautenberg and other supporters of Israel in Congress contend that Mr. Bush is attempting to pressure Israel into concessions before the peace talks even begin.
All sides seem to agree, however, that it would be in everyone's best interest to avoid a confrontation between the administration and Congress. "Everyone wants to work together," Senator Kasten said. "There's a lot of flexibility."