House Rejects Cut in Military Aid to Egypt
Administration Pressed Hill to Avoid Shifting Money for Arms to Economic Assistance
By Dan Morgan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page A04
The House yesterday rejected a $570 million cut in U.S. military aid to Egypt after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell issued a last-minute warning to lawmakers that the action would damage relations with a close Middle East ally "at a very sensitive moment in the region."
Although the 287 to 131 vote was lopsided, the administration and military contractors who sell U.S.-financed weaponry to Egypt took seriously the threat of a cut and worked behind the scenes to head it off.
Before the vote, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice made calls to some lawmakers, who were also on notice from arms companies that the shift could result in job losses in home districts. "It was a full-court press," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who offered the amendment to the $19.4 billion foreign aid bill for 2005.
His bill would have shifted the military aid to economic assistance, which he said is "desperately needed" in Egypt. "The last thing this society [Egypt] needs is the ultimate in high-tech weaponry," Lantos said.
The debate brought out highly ambivalent feelings about Egypt. The House's pro-Israel forces used the opportunity to vent frustration with the Egyptian government's role during hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians. Among those supporting the cut was House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), one of the strongest supporters of Israeli interests in Congress.
Lawmakers took the floor to rebuke the Egyptian government for tolerating anti-Semitism, limiting its cooperation with the United States in the war on terrorism and failing to prevent gun-smuggling to militant Palestinian groups.
But Powell and senior lawmakers in both parties warned that the action would send the wrong signal at a time when Egypt has begun working closely with Israel to assure a smooth transition as Israel plans to withdraw from Gaza.
In a letter to Congress, Powell noted that a unilateral reduction would weaken the balanced military aid to Egypt and Israel that is a "cornerstone" of the 1979 Camp David peace accords. In 2005, Israel and Egypt are set to receive $2.2 billion and $1.3 billion in grants, respectively, under the formula.
"Our credibility in this relationship depends to a great degree upon being a reliable provider of assistance to the Egyptian military," Powell wrote.
"This puts a finger in the eye of our friends in Egypt," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.)
Jewish House members were divided on the issue. Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) questioned why the United States was providing lavish military assistance to Egypt even though "it has no real enemies" and its government tolerates "TV shows that perpetuate anti-Semitism."
But she said she was reluctantly opposing the aid cut because of its timing, noting that Egypt has lately signaled its intention to play a more constructive Middle East role.
However, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), in backing Lantos's proposal, said years of U.S. aid to Egypt have done little to curb anti-Israel rhetoric in the country's media.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the principal pro-Israel lobby in the United States, took no official position on the issue. Earlier in the day, AIPAC won at least a symbolic victory when it helped push through the House a resolution that was critical of a July 9 advisory judgment from the International Court of Justice holding Israel's security wall to be illegal. The resolution indicated that the ruling was a result of improper political pressure from members of the U.N. General Assembly. The vote was 361 to 45.
Republican leaders hoped to take a final vote later yesterday on the underlying foreign aid bill. Tight budget restrictions forced the House to cut $2 billion from President Bush's request, but the measure still provides a record $2.2 billion to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis -- nearly $60 million more than last year.
The president got only half the $2.5 billion he requested for his signature foreign aid initiative, the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The corporation establishes a new way to dispense foreign aid to countries that qualify by meeting a list of criteria such as commitment to free-market economies and democratic institutions.
The bill provides $900 million in aid to Afghanistan, and continues a waiver that allows continued bilateral economic assistance to Azerbaijan despite that country's economic blockage of Armenia.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company