US House panel weighs bill restricting foreign aid to Egypt

WASHINGTON–A House panel on Wednesday pushed ahead on a bill to block US assistance to Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and the Palestinian Authority unless the Obama administration reassures Congress that they are cooperating in the war on terrorism.

The Republican-drafted measure was a direct challenge to President Barack Obama as members of the GOP majority sought to limit his foreign policy authority, slash US contributions to international organizations and reverse policies on abortion. Overall, the bill would cut US$6.4 billion from Obama's request of US$51 billion for the State Department and foreign operations in the next budget.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee was expected to work through the night Wednesday and complete the bill around midnight.

Frustrated with Pakistan's effort in the terror war, the bill would bar civilian and security aid to Islamabad unless the secretary of state can certify to Congress that it is pursuing terrorists and helping the US investigate how Osama bin Laden managed to live unscathed deep inside Pakistan.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the committee, said the intent was to put Pakistan "on notice that it is no longer business as usual and that they will be held to account if they continue to refuse to cooperate with our efforts to eliminate the nuclear black market, destroy the remaining elements of Osama Bin Laden's network and vigorously pursue our counterterrorism objectives.

"I think the prospect of a cutoff of assistance will get their attention and that the games being played with our security will finally stop," said the Florida Republican.

The panel's top Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman of California, said the US should get tough with Pakistan, but the bill's approach was short-sighted.

"The key to long-term stability in Pakistan, and the only way we'll ever get Pakistan to change its behavior, is by strengthening its civilian institutions — not weakening them as this bill will do," Berman said.

While the GOP-controlled House is likely to back the bill, it has little chance in the Democratic-led Senate. In fact, Congress has not passed an authorization bill in almost a decade.

However, the panel's actions could resonate with the Appropriations Committee that will put together a spending bill for foreign aid later this year. An authorization bill sets out the policy while a separate spending bill provides the money.

Early in the session, the committee narrowly backed an amendment to slash the US$48.5 million that the US provides for the Organization of American States, the political, judicial and social forum for the 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere. The vote was 22-20 for the amendment by Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla.

Democrats railed that the measure smacked of US isolationism by the GOP-controlled committee.

"This is folly. It's more than folly, it's dangerous," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who questioned why the US would abandon an opportunity to influence nations within its hemisphere.

Mack insisted that the measure did not represent isolationism but rather was targeted at an organization that backs Venezuela and its US foe, President Hugo Chavez.

"Let's engage our allies and friends, but let's not continue to support an organization that's perpetuating some countries' ability" to destroy democracies, Mack said.

The panel also voted 23-17 to cut the US contribution to the United Nations by 25 percent.

The US is the largest single contributor to the UN, responsible for 22 percent of the UN's regular budget and 27 percent of the money for peacekeeping operations. The Obama administration is seeking US$3.54 billion for the United Nations and other international agencies, and peacekeeping efforts in the fiscal year beginning 1 October.

Under the sweeping bill, aid to the Palestinian Authority would be contingent on the secretary certifying that no member of Hamas or any other terrorist organization was serving in a policy position. The two rival Palestinian leaderships — the secular Fatah and the Islamist Hamas — reconciled and are trying to form a new government. Israel and the US both consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

The Obama administration has requested some US$550 million in aid for the Palestinian Authority.

Assistance for Egypt would be based on whether its new government "is not directly or indirectly controlled by a foreign terrorist organization." The bill would also direct the administration to reassure Congress that Egypt is searching out and destroying any smuggling network and tunnels between the country and the Gaza strip.

Israeli and American officials fear that Hamas is moving weapons and militants into the Palestinian territory through tunnels along the Gaza border.

Aid to Lebanon would be contingent on the secretary certifying to Congress that no member of Hezbollah is in a policy position. In fact, members of the group are part of the government.

Aid to Yemen would be based on the administration reassuring Congress that no terrorist organization is part of the government.

The bill also takes several steps to help protect Peace Corps volunteers, including training on reducing the risks of sexual assault. In May, the committee heard testimony from three Peace Corps volunteers who were raped while serving overseas and the mother of a fourth who was murdered in Benin.

Underscoring the deep political divisions and lawmakers' predilection for talking, Republicans and Democrats spent close to an hour debating a non-binding amendment calling on the administration to urge the government of Turkey to end religious discrimination, particularly against Christian minorities.

Ackerman bemoaned the tenor of the debate and questioned why the committee would "take out all this time to fight about something we agree upon. And to do it with such venom."

The panel adopted the amendment 43-1.

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