When Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright travels to the Middle East in about three weeks, she will go empty-handed, financially speaking. Both houses of Congress have declined to provide $1.2 billion in aid sought by the Clinton administration to help Israel and the Palestinians carry out last year's Wye River interim peace agreement.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin confirmed yesterday that Albright, who had planned to travel to the region next week, will postpone the trip until late August or early September at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Barak has promised to resume next month the partial Israeli troop pullback from the West Bank envisaged in the Wye accord. Rubin said Albright accepted Barak's prediction that Israel and the Palestinians will resolve their current differences over the pullback schedule by late August, allowing Albright's trip to "focus on issues beyond implementation of Wye," including efforts to stimulate peace negotiations between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon.
The money that President Clinton promised Israel and the Palestinians, however, will not be available because both houses omitted it from their fiscal 2000 foreign aid spending bills. The White House has threatened to veto the final version of the bill if it emerges from a House-Senate conference with deep cuts in foreign aid programs. But even a veto would not force Congress to allocate the Wye-related money.
According to congressional staff members, the Wye money fell victim both to the overall squeeze on federal discretionary spending under balanced budget "caps" and to skepticism about the pace of progress between Israel and the Palestinians.
"After the agricultural emergency spending bill, you have about $6 billion and change left" out of the anticipated surplus in non-Social Security revenue, one staff member said. "Are you really going to spend it on Wye? In the end, the choice will be, are you going to spend the Social Security surplus on Wye or on Social Security?"
"All actors in both parties in both houses say it's not pressing until and unless we know there is going to be implementation of the interim agreement," another congressional staff member said. "Should the interim agreement move ahead, this is a matter that may be taken up in some endgame [spending] bill."
Both versions of the foreign aid bill passed by wide margins. There was virtually no debate about the Wye implementation funds because the money was never included in the bills members voted on; it did not survive earlier subcommittee markups.
The Office of Management and Budget sent the House a nine-page, single-spaced memorandum saying Clinton's advisers would recommend he veto the bill because of a score of provisions, including the overall total spending level. The lack of Wye implementation money, however, was not specifically cited as cause for a potential veto.
"Given the renewed dedication of all sides to the peace process," the OMB memo said, "the administration hopes to work with Congress to provide this funding to support and strengthen the peace process and to move toward a permanent agreement."
If Barak's new government and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority do resolve their differences over the timing of the next Israeli troop withdrawal, officials said, the Wye funds could still be provided in an end-of-session catchall spending bill or as an emergency appropriation, not subject to the spending caps.
Both houses voted to provide about $12.6 billion in bilateral foreign aid, contributions to international development banks and debt relief in fiscal 2000--nearly $2 billion less than Clinton requested.
"Funding at this level would seriously impair the president's ability to conduct an effective foreign policy," OMB said. "It would inevitably require reductions from previously enacted levels for programs managed by the Departments of State and Treasury, the Agency for International Development and others."
In addition to the reduced total, the bills include a range of provisions that have stirred objections from the administration. A cut of 41 percent in proposed spending for peacekeeping operations, for example, would reduce funds available for the extensive U.S. commitments in Bosnia and Kosovo and "diminish our ability to respond to unforeseen conflict and crises," OMB said.
The administration also objected to a proposed allocation of $240 million for the Peace Corps--the same as the current level, but $30 million less than the president asked for--and to sharp cuts in aid to Russia.