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Senate Foreign Relations chairman Kerry calls for Mubarak to 'step aside'

By Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 10:02 AM

Congress has taken an unusually bipartisan approach toward the mounting crisis in Egypt, with House and Senate leaders standing behind the Obama administration's message that Egyptians should make an "orderly transition" to avoid a violent conclusion to the week-long standoff.

By Tuesday morning, only three lawmakers had called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step aside, although the latest call -- made by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) -- could signal that more are on the way.

"President Hosni Mubarak must accept that the stability of his country hinges on his willingness to step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure," Kerry wrote in a New York Times op-ed article published Tuesday morning. "One of the toughest jobs that a leader under siege can perform is to engineer a peaceful transition. But Egyptians have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities."

On Monday and over the weekend, a collection of leaders from both parties followed a "one voice" approach of standing behind Sunday's public remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"We're watching a historic moment. . . . We need to have an orderly transition to democracy in Egypt," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Monday, using the precise phrase that Clinton echoed during interviews with five major Sunday news talk shows. "I support the universally recognized rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of speech, assembly and association."

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who voiced support for the White House on Sunday, declined to expand upon those remarks on Monday.

"I don't have any criticism of President Obama or Secretary Clinton at this point," McConnell said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I mean, they know full well that we can't give the Egyptians advice about who their leadership is. That's beyond the reach of the United States. And I think we ought to speak as one voice during this crisis."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), one of the main voices for human rights on Capitol Hill, issued a statement of support for the Egyptian protesters who are demanding new and fair elections. But she stopped short of calling for Mubarak to step aside.

"I'm inspired by people of Egypt seeking real democracy and join Secretary Clinton in support of orderly transition to fair elections," Pelosi wrote late Sunday via Twitter.

With the House out of session this week, a pair of Senate hearings on the withdrawal from Iraq will provide platforms for lawmakers such as Senate Foreign Relations Kerry and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, to speak out about the situation.

Still, some lawmakers expressed graver concerns about the unrest, saying that the United States' cautious approach toward stabilizing the region is missing a key moment and that more pressure should be applied to ensure that Mubarak's 30-year reign ends.

"While initially it may have been prudent for the Obama administration to walk that rhetorical tightrope to keep the confidence of regional leaders, that moment has surely passed," Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a former chairman of the Middle East subcommittee, said Monday. "By their passion, courage and sacrifice in the streets, Egyptians have proven beyond question that they are taking their government back and that the Mubarak-era of rule is ending. . . . His last act of service to Egypt should be to facilitate a fast transfer of power to a transitional government that can prepare for free and fair elections."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said Monday: "Mr. Mubarak will have to go, but not without an exit strategy that prevents the government from falling and leaving the door open for extremists."

The top House Republican in charge of Egypt's aid declined overtures to revoke that assistance.

"I urge caution when deciding what the U.S. response will be," said Rep. Kay Granger (Tex.), the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. "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."

Even before the Egyptian protests, some conservatives had advocated for eliminating foreign aid to that country to help cut the more than $1 trillion deficit. A proposal by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would eliminate all aid to Egypt and Israel, the two largest recipients of U.S. financial assistance in the past three decades.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested using the military assistance that Egypt receives as a carrot to force Mubarak to hold new elections. Egypt receives about $1.5 billion a year in U.S. economic and military assistance.

"The United States must leverage its long-standing assistance to press Mr. Mubarak to let the voice of his people be heard through legitimate democratic elections," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

Reid declined Monday to give his opinion on whether the United States should reduce its aid to Egypt, saying only that "the White House is totally on top of this." Since the Camp David Accords of 1978, which ended the long war between Egypt and Israel, there has been a widespread bipartisan agreement that each nation would receive U.S. financial help, a pact that top congressional leaders were not willing to discuss undoing.

"I think there's been general support for what the president has been doing," Reid said.

kanep@washpost.com sonmezf@washpost.com

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