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U.S. lawmakers differ on aid cutoff to Egypt

U.S. lawmakers are unlikely to slash American aid to Egypt quickly, but they are watching to see where unrest there leads, congressional aides and analysts said Wednesday.
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. lawmakers are unlikely to slash American aid to Egypt quickly, but they are watching to see where unrest there leads, congressional aides and analysts said Wednesday.

Views of the Egyptian turmoil vary on Capitol Hill. For now, the Republican-run House seems more cautious than the Democratic-run Senate about cutting U.S. aid to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government, which has been running at $1.5 billion a year.

This could lead to a battle over withholding aid to Egypt later this month, when lawmakers will get an opportunity to make changes. But much depends on events between now and then.

"I have a hard time seeing the politics come together in order to have a bipartisan and bicameral agreement on cutting aid to Egypt soon," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"I don't think Americans have a clear view yet (of events in Egypt) and therefore it's hard for Congress to have a clear view," Alterman said.

Most U.S. aid to Egypt is military and has gone for things like M1A1 Abrams battle tanks and F-16 fighter aircraft.

House Republican aides doubt there will be any major cuts in military aid to Egypt in the House version of an upcoming bill to fund the government from March through Sept. 30.

The legislation needs to be on the House floor by the week of Feb. 14, leaving little time for major changes in policy or funding, a House aide said.

The House Republican who chairs the committee on foreign aid, Rep. Kay Granger, urged caution this week in deciding what the U.S. response to events in Egypt will be.

"It is critical that we are deliberate about the actions we take. Egypt has been a moderate influence in the Middle East and has a peace agreement with Israel. I am continuing to monitor the events on the ground very closely," Granger said.

Senate likely to take different approach
But the Democratic-run Senate will act on the funding bill after the House does, and it might take a different approach to Egypt. The two chambers would have to work out differences.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy chairs the Senate subcommittee in charge of foreign aid and has taken a harder line on continuing aid to the Mubarak government, which he says has "no credibility" to oversee the transition to democracy.

Lawmakers in both chambers have expressed unease about what would happen if an anti-American government appeared in Cairo.

"Opposition leaders must categorically reject the involvement of extremist elements who are trying to use this crisis to gain power, hijack Egypt's future, and seriously damage Egypt's relationship with the United States, Israel, and others," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said last week that the United States would continue to monitor how Egypt's military responds to the crisis — suggesting that a major army intervention to put down protests might trigger a change.

"There are stipulations in terms of the behavior of recipients of our assistance. And obviously, if aid is used in a way that is contrary to our laws, our policies, and our values, we'll make adjustments as we need to," Crowley said.