The U.S. Senate rejected a proposal Wednesday to take money meant for aid to Egypt and instead spend it on building bridges at home, after a potential Republican presidential candidate challenged the Obama administration's refusal to label the ouster of Egypt's president a military coup.
Sen. Rand Paul's amendment to next year's transportation bill would have halted the $1.5 billion in assistance the U.S. gives Egypt each year. Most of it is military assistance.
Paul cited the U.S. law that bans most forms of support for countries that suffer a military "coup." The administration has said it won't make that determination about the Egyptian army's July 3 ouster of the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
"Our nation's bridges are crumbling," said Paul, a strict conservative who has previously failed in attempts to cut U.S. support programs for Egypt, Libya and Pakistan. "I propose that we take the billion dollars that is now being illegally given to Egypt and spend it at home."
The Senate voted 86-13 against the measure. It was the first to be proposed in either chamber of Congress since the army arrested Morsi, suspended the constitution and cracked down on his Muslim Brotherhood. A series of deadly protests have taken place since then in what was once Washington's strongest ally in the Muslim world.
The vote exposed a division among Republicans, with libertarians like Paul against others such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who plan to visit Egypt next week at President Barack Obama's request to press for new elections.
"It's important that we send a message to Egypt that we're not abandoning them," McCain said. Right now, Egypt is "descending into chaos. It's going to be a threat to the United States."
Graham told reporters on Tuesday that holding the vote at all could send the wrong signal to Egypt. He has argued that cutting off the aid could threaten Israel's security and U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
The Obama administration told lawmakers last week it won't declare Egypt's government overthrow a coup, guided by similar concerns about suspending programs that secure Israel's borders and fight weapons smuggling into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
It also fears losing its greatest source of leverage with Egypt's military leadership.