WASHINGTON -- President Clinton vowed yesterday to work with Congress to find a way to compensate Pakistan for the purchase of more than $1 billion of military equipment, which was paid for but has been held up by law for five years in a dispute over that country's nuclear program.
"I don't think it's right for us to keep the money and the equipment," Mr. Clinton said after a meeting at the White House with Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who has demanded that the United States refund the money or deliver the equipment, including 28 F-16 jet fighters. "That is not right, and I am going to try to find a resolution to it."
"Your country has been a good partner, and more importantly, has stood for democracy and opportunity and moderation," Mr. Clinton said in a news conference with Ms. Bhutto in the White House foyer. "The future of the entire part of the world where Pakistan is depends in some large measure on Pakistan's success, so we want to make progress on this."
In her first working visit to Washington since her return to power in 1993, and the first by a Pakistani leader since the end of the Cold War, Ms. Bhutto tried to emphasize her country's long alliance with the United States, its willingness to help fight international terrorism and its place as a mainstream Islamic state in the face of more militant alternatives.
Mr. Clinton's strong language about the disputed equipment was an acknowledgment that his administration values Ms. Bhutto's efforts. But he also made clear that he did not intend to seek outright repeal of the Pressler Amendment.
The measure, named after its Republican sponsor, Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota, has barred direct economic aid and sales of military equipment to Pakistan since 1990, when the Bush administration was unable to certify that Pakistan did not ,, have a nuclear weapon.
Instead, Mr. Clinton said, "I intend to ask Congress to show some flexibility in the Pressler Amendment so that we can have some economic and military cooperation."
Senior administration officials said later that the options could range from new support for international peacekeeping and efforts against terrorism and drug trafficking, to U.S. training for Pakistani troops, to seeking a waiver of the $50,000 annual storage fee that Pakistan now pays for each of the jets, in storage in Arizona.
Other possibilities include the return of spare parts and equipment sent to the United States for repair before the sanctions were invoked, or sale of the planes to a third country. But that last option is tricky, because the planes' technology is already outdated enough that they would be unlikely to bring the full price.
"Now under the law, we can't give up the equipment," Mr. Clinton said. "So I intend to consult with the Congress on that and see what we can do."
In essence, officials said, Mr. Clinton wants to find a way to preserve the aims of the Pressler Amendment -- curbing the spread of nuclear weapons in the region -- while softening what he believes have been its unfair effects on a longtime ally, effects that have left the United States with even less leverage over Pakistan's nuclear program.
But prospects on Capitol Hill for any changes are mixed. The United States has long since dispensed the money for the planes to the contractors that built them, and a new appropriation of such magnitude is highly unlikely in a climate in which calls for cutbacks in foreign aid are the order of the day.
Some Republicans support a one-time exemption that would allow resolution of the dispute, but Mr. Pressler himself opposes any change.
"If the administration wanted to lead the charge, I think they could probably repeal the amendment," Mr. Pressler said in a telephone interview. "I wouldn't be with them, but if that's what they feel, that's what they should do, though it would fly in the face of everything they've said about nuclear proliferation."
In the meantime, Mr. Pressler said, he would oppose half measures, like waiving storage fees or new training assistance. "I think anything like that is going to be misleading the Pakistanis and just make them madder in the end," he said. "I support keeping it the way it is and waiting for the Pakistanis to make a move."
Ms. Bhutto, who is under considerable political pressure at home to show results from her generally friendly posture toward Washington, and who has pressed the question of the planes aggressively on Capitol Hill during her weeklong visit, seized on Mr. Clinton's words.
"I am encouraged by my discussions with the president this morning and the understanding that he has shown for Pakistan's position," the prime minister said. "I welcome the Clinton administration's decision to work with Congress to revise the Pressler Amendment."
Ms. Bhutto denied that Pakistan had any bombs, but acknowledged the official U.S. position that it would quickly be able to assemble one.