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US Congress moves to restrict aid to Egypt, Pakistan, PA

House passes bill restricting US foreign aid to Egypt, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority; Senate to vote on measure this weekend

AP, Sunday 18 Dec 2011
US Congress
US Congress, Photo: Reuters
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US Congress would impose restrictions on aid to Egypt, Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority in a $53.3 billion bill that avoids the deep cuts in foreign assistance that republicans had pursued this year.

The House passed the measure on Friday and the Senate is expected to vote sometime this weekend as this legislation is part of a sweeping, $1 trillion-plus year-end spending package that provides money for ten Cabinet agencies through September.

Foreign aid amounts to just 1 per cent of the federal budget, but lawmakers intent on cutting the deficit, especially conservative Tea Party Republicans, have clamoured for significant reductions in spending overseas.

Democrats and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pressed to spare the accounts.

The legislation would provide $53.3 billion for foreign assistance and the State Department, $42.1 billion for the base budget and $11.2 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations account.

That account pays for the State Department’s role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other expenses.

Lawmakers shifted costs for security and economic assistance, funds for the State Department and for the US Agency for International Development into the account, increasing the amount from $7.6 billion to $11.2 billion.

Still, the base budget is some $6 billion less than the current level and $8.7 billion below what President Barack Obama sought for the fiscal year that began on 1 October.

The bill does provide $3.1 billion in security assistance for ally Israel.

“In a difficult economic and political climate, this bill meets our national security needs and global responsibilities while implementing tough restrictions and requirements on recipients of US assistance,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid.

Reflecting concerns about uncertainty within the Egyptian government, the bill would block the release of $1.3 billion in security assistance to Cairo and $250 million in economic assistance until the secretary of state makes several assurances to Congress.

She must certify that Egypt is abiding by a 1979 peace treaty with Israel and that military rulers are supporting the transition to civilian government with free and fair elections and “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law.”

The military took over in Egypt after long-time president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular revolt in February.

On Friday, Egypt held its second round of parliamentary elections.

The legislation also freezes aid to Pakistan until the secretary can certify that Islamabad is cooperating on counterterrorism, including taking steps to prevent terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network from operating in the country.

The aid amount was unspecified in the legislation as Congress gave the Obama administration flexibility to figure out the funds.

A separate defence bill would hold back $700 million for Pakistan until the defence secretary provides Congress a report on how Islamabad is countering the threat of improvised explosive devices.

The bill continues the existing restrictions on aid to the Palestinian Authority, requiring the secretary to certify that it is committed to peaceful co-existence with Israel and is taking appropriate steps to combat terrorism.

Economic assistance for the Palestinians is in jeopardy if they pursue statehood recognition in the United Nations over the objections of the United States and Israel, which wants to resume talks.

The amount was not spelled out, again leaving it to the administration to sort out.

The restrictions carry a waiver for national security.

In a victory for congressional Democrats and the Obama administration, the bill dropped a House-backed ban on federal money for international family planning groups that either offer abortions or provide abortion information, counselling or referrals.

The policy has bounced in and out of law for the past quarter century since Republican President Ronald Reagan first adopted it in1984.

Democrat Bill Clinton ended the ban in 1993, but Republican George W. Bush re-instituted it in 2001 as one of his first acts in office.

Within days of his inauguration, Obama reversed the policy.

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