The Cable

Senate Republicans battle to influence Egypt aid

Four different Senate Republicans have four different ideas on how to alter U.S. aid to Egypt, in a struggle that is also becoming about the future of Republican leadership on foreign policy.

The Senate is working now on the next Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government from April until October -- and aid to Egypt is the main foreign policy issue likely to be attached to the funding measure. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), John McCain (R-AZ), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Rand Paul (R-KY) all have introduced amendments to the CR dealing with Egypt aid, but they all have competing ideas on how to condition it in light of Egypt's changing security challenges and the fragile path to democracy under the government led by Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsy.

Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has also introduced an amendment on Egypt aid, making it five total amendments that are now the subject of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations.

"We have five different amendments that have been offered on Egypt," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said on the Senate floor Thursday, lamenting that the Senate was confronted with tackling the Egypt aid issue in a rush on a temporary funding bill. Reid doesn't really want to do Egypt policy on this bill at all.

"This is a CR for six months. We have a functioning Foreign Relations Committee. That's where this should take place," he said. "We all have concerns about Egypt. Our funding in Egypt, maintaining stability in the region, supporting Israel. We have, as I've indicated, five senators who have filed five separate, distinct amendments. And literally staffs with senators have worked all day coming up with an amendment that Democrats and Republicans could agree on. It hasn't been done. Doesn't mean it can't be done, but it hasn't been done. I would again remind senators that this is a Continuing Resolution. The long-term solution to the situation in the Middle East is not a short-term CR. Whatever we do on this bill would expire in six months anyway."

But despite Reid's reluctance, senators are likely to coalesce around one or two Egypt aid amendments that could get a vote on the Senate floor next week. The first senator to introduce an Egypt amendment was Rubio, who spoke about it in an interview this week with The Cable.

"This is not about cancelling foreign aid to Egypt per se. This is about restructuring it in a way that lines up with the interests of the taxpayers of the United States of America," Rubio said. "Their real security needs are largely internal and we want to recalibrate our military aid to Egypt to meet their actual needs. Egypt doesn't need tanks, it doesn't need jet fighters, it's not going to be invaded by neighbors in the near future."

For Rubio, the Egypt amendment is his opening salvo in what promises to be a year of increasing involvement in an array of foreign policy issues. He promised he would have similar amendments in the future on aid to other countries as well.

"Foreign aid is important because it increases our influence and in particular our ability to influence things around the world to advance our interests. But foreign aid is not charity.... That means that every single dime we give in foreign aid should be conditioned," he said.

Rubio is also concerned about the Morsy government's commitment to the Camp David accords, their unwillingness or inability to maintain security in the Sinai Peninsula, and their treatment of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations.

"We've heard some of the comments of the president of Egypt and some of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's downright offensive, and that's their ideology and we've seen some of that come through in their public policy," he said.

Rubio's original amendment would have blocked disbursements of economic support funds (ESF) and new foreign military financing for Egypt until the administration could certify that the Morsy government was enacting economic and political reforms, not restricting religious and human rights, not undermining free and fair elections, improving its treatment of foreign NGOs, fully implementing the peace treaty with Israel, taking all available actions to end smuggling into Gaza and combat terrorism in the Sinai.

The Rubio amendment required the administration to certify that the government of Egypt had apportioned specific amounts of aid to counterterrorism and the Sinai but gave the administration the authority to waive the new aid restrictions every six months.

The McCain amendment takes a different, less confrontational approach. It only would impact foreign military financing, not economic support funds, and clearly states that any change in Egypt military aid should only affect new contracts, not existing contracts for items already in the manufacturing pipeline.

The McCain amendment requires the administration to report back to Congress about how the Egyptian military is spending the money and how it might be spent better in the security interests of both Egypt and the United States. But there's no cut off of aid and no waiver authority. Last year, Egyptians got angry when Congress imposed new restrictions on military aid to Cairo, only to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waive them anyway.

After McCain filed his amendment, Rubio made some changes to his amendment to bring it closer in line with McCain's. Rubio's new amendment now conditions ESF funds in a way that's closer to what's already in present law. Backroom negotiations between the two offices are ongoing.

The Leahy amendment is seen as the Democrats' attempt to take what they liked of the Republican amendments and try to reach a compromise text. It most closely follows McCain's approach by requiring the administration to report on the military aid spending but also requires the administration to report on political reform, human rights, and NGO treatment in Egypt.

Paul's amendment would cut off all assistance to Egypt until Morsy says in English and Arabic that he intends to uphold the Camp David accords. Inhofe's amendment would conditionally suspend the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. Inhofe has also co-sponsored the Paul amendment.

"For months, I have been calling for President Obama and his administration to hold president Morsy accountable for failing to promote promised democracy in Egypt and for the instability in the region," Inhofe said on the Senate floor this week. "Under President Morsy and his radical Muslim Brotherhood, the United States' historically good relationship with Egypt is at a standstill."

The Cable

Obama’s Middle East schedule revealed

President Barack Obama will travel to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan next week on his first trip there since taking office, and the schedule is packed with speeches, meetings, and cultural experiences of all kinds.

First Lady Michelle Obama won't be on the trip and Vice President Joe Biden will be at the Vatican attending the formal installment of Pope Francis I, but Secretary of State John Kerry will be with Obama as he visits the  region. Nobody expects the president to make any monumental policy announcements or unveil any new plans to revive the Middle East peace process, but Obama will be speaking directly to the Israeli people on their turf for the very first time.

"First of all, let me just say that this is a very important trip for the president. It's his first trip to Israel since becoming president, and the first foreign trip of his second term in office. We felt like this was an important opportunity for the president to go to the region," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said Thursday. "More important than that, in some respects, this is an opportunity for the president to speak directly to the Israeli people."

"Beyond that, it's a very important time for him to also reinforce U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority," Rhodes said. "And then, of course, King Abdullah is a very close ally and partner of the United States and Jordan."

On Wednesday, March 20, Obama will arrive in Tel Aviv and attend an arrival ceremony with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will also view an Iron Dome missile battery there. Then Obama will go to Peres's residence, after which they will make statements. Obama will then go to Netanyahu's residence for a bilateral meeting, have a press conference with the prime minister there, and then join him for a working dinner.

"The president and Prime Minister Netanyahu, as you've heard us say, have spent more time together one-on-one than, frankly, any other leader that the president has spent some time with since he came into office," Rhodes said.

On Thursday, March 21, Obama will begin his day with a visit to the Israel Museum, where he is very much looking forward to seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls, according to Rhodes. He will also visit a technology exhibition at the museum.

After that, Obama will go to Ramallah and hold a bilateral meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by a press conference and then a working lunch. Then Obama will join Prime Minister Salam Fayyad at the Al-Bireh Youth Center, also in Ramallah. 

On Thursday afternoon, Obama will go to Jerusalem and deliver a big speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center to an audience that will include students from every major Israeli university, except from Ariel University in the West Bank. The White House explained that invitations were only extended to schools that partner with the U.S. embassy and Ariel is not one of those schools.

"The president's speech I think will focus on the nature of the ties between the United States and Israel, the broad agenda that we work on together on security, on peace, on economic prosperity," said Rhodes. "And I think he'll have a chance to speak to the future of that relationship, so discussing not just the nature of the challenges that we face today, but where the United States and Israel are working to move together as we head into the future of the 21st century."

The Cable asked Rhodes why Obama chose not to speak in front of the Israeli Knesset, as President Bill Clinton did in 1994 and George W. Bush did in 2008. Rhodes said Obama wanted to talk to Israeli youth directly.

"What we told the Israeli government is that the president was very interested in speaking to the Israeli people, and that, in particular, he wanted to speak to young people.... And in this instance, we felt like bringing together an audience of university students from a broad range of partners that our embassy has in Israel would allow him to speak, again, not just to political leadership -- who he'll be meeting with on the trip -- but to the Israeli public and Israeli young people," he said.

On Thursday night, Obama will attend a dinner at Peres's residence. On Friday morning, Obama will go to Mount Herzl and lay wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, and slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. Later on Friday, Obama will visit Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

On Friday afternoon, Obama will move on to Amman, Jordan, where he will be greeted by King Abdullah II and have a bilateral meeting, a joint press conference, and a dinner. On Saturday, Obama will visit the ancient site of Petra and then head back to Washington.

Rhodes said that the Jordan stop was important to Obama for three reasons: it is a security partner, it is heavily involved in the Syria crisis, and it is on a path of reform that could ensure its stability over time.

"We believe that the Jordanians are very sincere and committed to a reformed agenda, and the president wants to reinforce the need to make continued progress in that regard -- because ultimately reform is the path to lasting stability in terms of a government that is a partner of the United States and responsive to the Jordanian people," Rhodes said.

Getty Images