House Panel OKs $21.3 Billion Foreign Aid Bill

A House committee approved a bill Thursday that would give Egypt $1.7 billion after rejecting a Democratic lawmaker's effort to withhold some of the aid until the country makes political reforms.

On a voice vote, the House Appropriations Committee signed off on a $21.3 billion measure that would pay for a range of foreign assistance programs for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

The bill would provide $3.4 billion to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria worldwide, $2.4 billion in aid for Israel, and $2 billion for the administration's hallmark program designed to reward developing nations for a commitment to democracy.

It also would provide $522 million to promote stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq and $450 million for assistance in Sudan.

On Egypt, the bill fully funds President Bush's request, including $50 million for programs encouraging democratic reforms and $50 million for education. Money would be withheld until Egypt reformed certain parts of its financial sector.

Administration officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill call Egypt an important ally in the Middle East. Nevertheless, they have called for greater democracy in the Arab nation and have raised concerns about Egypt's human rights record.

U.S. officials also have criticized the prosecution of Ayman Nour, an opposition leader in Egypt who was imprisoned for five years on charges widely regarded as trumped up.

The United States provides about $1 billion to $2 billion a year in aid to Egypt.

Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee, said the State Department still has control of about $800 million Congress has provided over the past four years for Egypt. He said Egypt has not yet received that money because the country has not yet reached certain benchmarks.

Given a difficult budget year, the bill uses $200 million of that money to pay for other programs in the bill, Kolbe said.

"This is not designed to punish Egypt," he said.

However, Rep. David Obey, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, sought to send a message about Egypt's record on democracy. His amendment would have withheld $200 million intended for new weapons and equipment for the Egyptian military until Congress determined progress has been made on political reforms.

"It is absolutely urgent that we send some signal to the Egyptian government that they've got to change ... before it's too late to matter," Obey, D-Wis., said.

But Kolbe called Obey's amendment "the wrong approach" and said that Egypt would just get the money for new weapons and equipment from other countries. "That means China, that means Russia," Kolbe said.

After a lengthy debate, the committee rejected the amendment on a voice vote.