WASHINGTON – The Senate roundly rejected a proposal Wednesday to redirect aid for Egypt into bridge-building projects in the U.S. after a potential Republican presidential candidate and tea party favorite challenged the Obama administration's refusal to label the ouster of Egypt's president a military coup.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky's amendment to next year's transportation bill would have halted the $1.5 billion in mainly military assistance the U.S. provides Egypt each year.
He cited the U.S. law banning most forms of support for countries that suffer a military "coup," a determination the administration has said it won't make about the Egyptian army's July 3 ouster of the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. And he invoked U.S. infrastructure shortcomings as well as Detroit's bankruptcy and Chicago's violence to make his case for the money to be put back into the domestic economy.
"Our nation's bridges are crumbling," said Paul, who has previously failed in attempts to cut U.S. support programs for Egypt, Libya and Pakistan. "I propose that we take the billion dollars that is now being illegally given to Egypt and spend it at home."
The Senate voted 86-13 against the measure, the first to be proposed in either chamber of Congress since the army arrested Morsi, suspended the constitution and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. A series of deadly protests have taken place since in what was once Washington's strongest ally in the Muslim world, but which has faced near constant turmoil since the revolution that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The vote laid bare a stark division among Republicans, pitting libertarians like Paul against hawks such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who plan to visit Egypt next week at President Barack Obama's request to press for new elections. They were joined by Sens. Bob Corker and Jim Inhofe, the top Republicans on the Senate's foreign relations and armed services committees, in speaking out against the amendment.
"It's important that we send a message to Egypt that we're not abandoning them," McCain said. Right now, Egypt is "descending into chaos. It's going to be a threat to the United States."
Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential rival of Paul's for the GOP ticket in 2016, sought middle ground by urging Egypt's aid to be restructured to better serve U.S. interests. Paul didn't gain Rubio's vote, but he did get that of minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell.
On Tuesday, Graham had told reporters that holding the vote at all could send the wrong signal to Egypt. Cutting off the aid could threaten Israel's security and U.S. counterterrorism efforts, while backing Paul's proposal risked giving the impression that the U.S. is indifferent to the military's actions.
The Obama administration told lawmakers last week it won't declare Egypt's government overthrow a coup, guided by similar concerns about suspending programs that secure Israel's borders and fight weapons smuggling into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. It also fears losing its greatest source of leverage with Egypt's military leadership.
The administration's position is largely supported by Senate Democrats, who voted unanimously against Paul.
"This amendment may be good politics, but it is bad policy," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.