There's a raging debate on Capitol Hill surrounding huge cuts to foreign aid funding proposed in the House Republicans' latest spending bill. But several senators are looking to add a generous foreign aid package for Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern countries when the bill comes over from the House.
"A [continuing resolution] that had full year funding for the troops plus an Egypt, Israel, and Middle East stability package of full year funding would send the right signal from the United States," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable in an exclusive interview.
The current version of the continuing resolution, which is needed to keep the government running past March 4, is being debated in the House now. It proposes significant cuts in the State Department and foreign assistance budgets below what the president requested for fiscal 2011, which began last October.
Kirk said several senators on both sides of the aisle supported the new Middle East Stability funding package, which would fully fund foreign aid accounts for a host of countries in the region at the level requested by the president and pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.
"There's not a need to fund the full foreign assistance program but there is a need for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan related programs to receive full funding for fiscal 2011 right now. This is being discussed and I strongly support it," Kirk said.
Back in the House, there is plenty of support for funding Israel aid, which totals about $3 billion per year, but some Republicans are looking to restrict aid to other Middle East countries, such as Egypt. House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has argued that further funding should be withheld from Egypt unless they exclude Islamist groups such as the the Muslim Brotherhood, from participating in the new government.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable in an exclusive interview that new funding for Egypt was needed to bolster secular and moderate political groups that have been marginalized over the past decades under the old Egyptian regime.
Berman supports increased funding for U.S.-based organizations that promote civil society in Egypt, such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
"We need to educate [moderate Egyptian political groups] on how to communicate, how to build a political party, how to organize. There's a way to do that without choosing who you want but giving the secular parties some skills and some resources to get going," Berman said.
Berman said that increased aid to Egypt now should not be held up due to concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood, which he argued is not going to be particularly interested in NDI or IRI programs anyway.
"America can't decide who participates, we shouldn't, and to the extent we try to too clumsily, we are going to hurt the cause we all share," Berman said. "Mubarak is the one who drew the line, ‘it's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood.' Our job is to create an alternative."
If groups have a chance to organize, the vast majority of the Egyptian population will not be receptive to the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda, Berman said. That doesn't mean, however, that he takes the threat posed by Islamist groups in Egypt lightly."Am I concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood? You betcha," he said.