Congress moves to restrict aid to Egypt, Pakistan

WASHINGTON-December 16, 2011 The legislation is part of a sweeping, $1 trillion-plus year-end spending package that provides money for 10 Cabinet agencies through September. The House passed the measure on Friday and the Senate is expected to vote sometime this weekend.

Foreign aid amounts to just 1 percent of the federal budget, but lawmakers intent on cutting the deficit, especially conservative tea party Republicans, have clamored 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 U.S. 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 Oct. 1. 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 U.S. assistance," said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid.

Reflecting concerns about uncertainty within the Egyptian government, the bill would block 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 longtime President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular revolt in February. On Friday, Egypt held its second round of parliamentary elections.

The legislation 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 defense bill would hold back $700 million for Pakistan until the defense 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 a 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, counseling or referrals.

The policy has bounced in and out of law for the past quarter century since Republican President Ronald Reagan first adopted it 1984. 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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