The House bowed to the Bush administration and rebuffed a bipartisan effort Thursday to cut military aid to Egypt nearly in half, heeding arguments the proposal would threaten U.S. relations with Cairo (search) at a delicate time.
But in a slap at another American ally in the Middle East — and over White House objections — the Republican-run chamber voted to erase the token amount of aid in the bill for Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials have alternated between praising the desert kingdrabia won't qualify for millions of dollars in price breaks for some American military equipment and U.S. training of its defense forces, said the sponsor of the effort, Rep. Anthony Weiner (search), D-N.Y. He said the bill had $25,000 for Saudi Arabia, aid that by law triggered lower costs for military aid.
The House rejected the drive to slice Egypt's military aid by 287-131 despite widespread expectations by members of both parties the proposal would pass. Republicans and Democrats voted against the plan by roughly 2-1 margins.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) had written lawmakers urging the plan's defeat. Also, some legislators said President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice (search), made telephone calls to round up votes.
One factor in the vote was a concern by some lawmakers about Powell's assertion that the proposal could have caused the cancellation of $2.2 billion worth of contracts for Egypt to purchase military items from U.S. companies, House aides said.
"Without question, the secretary of state ... made it very difficult for us," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a sponsor of the defeated plan. "We didn't make law, but hopefully we made a point."
The measure would have reduced a proposed $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt next year by $570 million, but leave total U.S. aid to Cairo intact. The money cut from the military would have been shifted to economic aid for Egypt, an account set to receive a proposed $535 million without the extra funds.
Both the Saudi and Egypt proposals were offered as an amendment to a $19.4 billion foreign aid bill for next year, which passed by 365-41. The measure provides more than $2.2 billion for Israel and other funds for Afghanistan, Pakistan and other U.S. allies, and to fight AIDS in poor countries.
The measure's proponents, led by Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., counted on widespread congressional frustration with Egypt's efforts to confront terrorism, crack down on internal anti-Semitism and foster peace in the Middle East.
Powell said in the letter the proposal would "seriously undermine" American relations with "an ally that can help us in war and peace."
Powell wrote that shifting the money would hurt the relationship "at a very sensitive moment in the region, one that has witnessed Egyptian engagement in and support of our regional objectives."
Israel has said it will withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, a strip of land once controlled by Egypt now home to 7,500 Israel settlers and 1.3 million Palestinians. Egypt, worried that extremist Muslims might take power, has offered to send 200 advisers to train Palestinian security forces and build police stations while demanding that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yield some power.
During the House debate, proponents of cutting Cairo's military assistance said Egypt was facing no serious outside enemies 25 years after the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. The best way to help Egypt, they said, was to help strengthen its economy.
"We should no longer have to pay the Egyptian military political protection money to keep it in place," Lantos said. "If we enhance our support for economic and social projects in Egypt, our credibility with the Egyptian people will soar."
Other lawmakers questioned Egypt's dedication to fighting terrorism.
They said Egypt has done little to stop arms from being smuggling past its borders and into Gaza. They also complained that Egypt has not contributed any troops in Afghanistan or Iraq.
"Egypt has been largely absent from the war on terrorism," Pence said.
Israel and Egypt long have been the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. Iraq has surpassed that, receiving $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds last November.
The overall bill is $1.9 billion greater than this year's total and $1.9 billion less than what Bush requested.
The measure also has:
—$1.25 billion for a program that helps countries have moved toward democratic reforms. The amount is half what Bush wanted.
—$311 million to help in Sudan, where a rebellion has killed 30,000 people, caused starvation and created 1 million refugees. A separate defense bill would provide an additional $95 million.
—$2.2 billion to fight AIDS in Africa and other poor regions. That is $600 million more than this year's amount. Some of the money would also go to fight malaria and tuberculosis.
—$977 million for Afghanistan, including $400 million to train the country's military.
—$300 million in military assistance for Pakistan and $66 million for Poland's defense forces.