The Senate Foreign Relations Committee cut $212 million, more than 10 percent, from the administration's 1980 foreign aid request yesterday and recommended the elimination of bilateral economic aid to 10 countries.
In a move that neatly tied fiscal austerity to foreign policy at a time when several committee members are gearing up reelection campaigns, the cut brought the authorized amount of aid to a level slightly below the 1979 appropriations.
The committee recommended that the savings be made by eliminating U.S. economic aid programs to Panama, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay and the Central African Empire.
"This was not one of our better days," an administration official involved in planning the requests said after yesterday's committee markup session.
Others were less philosophical. "This is not going to help America's image," said another official. "Deleting 10 countries will say to the world community that the United States in some ways is turning its back on development and on economic basket cases."
The panel also voted to lift a U.S. ban on humanitarian aid to Uganda and end the trade embargo imposed because of the policies of Idi Amin, recently deposed as dictator. The administration had been urging Congress to take action so the United States can send Uganda medicine, hospital supplies and other equipment.
While human rights activists hailed the recommendations as affecting countries where severe rights abuses have been alleged, the list reflects a curious variety of justifications for the cuts.
It includes three countries where the administration already had decided, or was legally obligated, to cut back or end programs previously requested.
The White House scrapped a $45 million program for Pakistan last month because of statutory prohibitions against assistance to countries importing nuclear equipment without safeguards.
A $17 million program in Afghanistan was shelved in protest over the Feb. 14 assassination of U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs, and U.S. law prohibits aid to Ethiopia because of its government's unpaid expropriation of U.S. property.
Committee Chairman Frank Church (D-Idaho) said the recommendation to eliminate $12.8 million requested for Panama reflected a congressional "feeling that the larger revenues that will accrue to Panama as a result of the Panama Canal treaties make it very questionable that we continue to maintain an aid program" there.
I Haiti, the committee noted that government failure to implement fiscal reforms and end corruption as promised last year should mean cancellation of $18.4 million requested for 1980.
Three Central American countries-Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvator-were cited both for human rights abuses and internal chaos that the committee said prevented distribution of aid money. For the Central African Empire and Paraguay, the reason was human rights.
The recommendations amount to a refusal to authorize funds for the specific programs requested. They are not binding on the White House, which could choose, after appropriations for authorized programs are made, to transfer money back into them by taking it from another country.
But administration sources noted that such "recommendations" are "generally" followed.
"If they decide they want to make cuts somewhere else rather than where we indicated," Church said, the administration has that right. "But in determining how much was to be cut out" of the total dollar aid amount, he said, "we felt a responsibility to indicate where" the committee thought cuts could and should be made.
Because of the reasons for their recommendations-human rights and internal chaos-Church said, the committee wanted to "cut the entire program" for the 10 countries.
While the countries offered justifications, however, the committee first went at the aid issue from the standpoint of cutting money, and then deciding which countries the money should be cut from, sources said.
"There was a desire on the part of the committee to try and hold the aid program at something that approximated last year's levels," Church said. He pointed out that the $1.7 billion authorization approved yesterday was $57 million less than 1979 appropriations for corresponding programs-most of which are administered by the Agency for International Development.
The original 1980 administration request was approximately $1.9 billion. The cuts, Church said, were "in recognition of the fact that aid should not be treated any differently than domestic spending" at a time when Americans are interested in cutting and balancing the federal budget.
He called suggestions that the cut reflected Senate concern over the 1980 elections "preposterous."
"What we are saying is that we are being aksed for roughly $5 billion" in supplemental funds to finance the Arab-Israeli peace accord and other special projects, Church said.
All of the cutback measures approved by the committee were contained in its staff's suggestions, and all passed with little or no objection, except in the case of Panama.
A late-in-the-day appeal by Douglas J. Bennet, assistant secretary of state for congressional relations, to leave Panama off the list lost by a 4-to-4 vote.
Widespread congressional opposition to aid to Panama, because of the canal treaties, was reflected last month when the House voted to cut U.S. military assistance there in half.
In a companion economic aid bill to the one discussed in the Senate committee, the House took little specific action against any country except for Panama. In a floor vote, it did decide to cut the overall administration request by 5 percent.
The Senate economic aid bill has not been scheduled for floor debate. After passage, it must be reconciled with the House version.