WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers are unlikely to slash American aid to Egypt quickly, but they are watching to see where unrest there leads, congressional aides and analysts said on Wednesday.
Views of the Egyptian turmoil vary on Capitol Hill. For now, the Republican-run House of Representatives seems more cautious than the Democratic-run Senate about cutting U.S. aid to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government, which has been running at $1.5 billion a year.
That could lead to a battle over withholding aid to Egypt later this month, when lawmakers will get an opportunity to make changes. Much depends on events between now and then.
“I have a hard time seeing the politics come together in order to have a bipartisan and bicameral agreement on cutting aid to Egypt soon,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“I don’t think Americans have a clear view yet (of events in Egypt) and therefore it’s hard for Congress to have a clear view,” Alterman said.
Most U.S. aid to Egypt is military and has gone for things like M1A1 Abrams battle tanks and F-16 fighter aircraft. The unrest in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries could put the brakes on billions of dollars of arms sales to the entire region, analysts say.
House Republican aides doubt there will be any major cuts in military aid to Egypt in the House version of an upcoming bill to fund the government from March through September 30.
The bill should be on the House floor by the week of February 14, leaving scant time for big policy changes, a House aide said.
The House Republican who chairs the committee on foreign aid, Representative Kay Granger, urged caution this week in deciding what the U.S. response to events in Egypt will be.
“It is critical that we are deliberate about the actions we take. Egypt has been a moderate influence in the Middle East and has a peace agreement with Israel. I am continuing to monitor the events on the ground very closely,” Granger said.
The Democratic-run Senate will act on the funding bill after the House, and might take a different approach. The chambers would then have to work out their differences.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy chairs the Senate subcommittee in charge of foreign aid and has taken a harder line on continuing aid to the Mubarak government, which he says has “no credibility” to oversee the transition to democracy.
Leahy suggested on Wednesday that Washington should think about economic aid for a new government in Cairo, saying he hoped for a transition to a government that would address joblessness and hunger and “the suffering of the people.”
“Those would be very appropriate areas to spend American aid,” Leahy told Reuters Insider Television. “But it’s certainly not going to be spent on a government that must leave and is dragging its feet on leaving,” he added, referring to the Mubarak government.
Leahy added the Obama administration could stop spending money already appropriated by Congress for this year. “There is money in the pipeline, the administration can stop that money at any time,” he said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said last week the United States would continue to monitor how Egypt’s military responds to the crisis -- suggesting that a major army intervention to put down protests might trigger a change.
“There are stipulations in terms of the behavior of recipients of our assistance. And obviously, if aid is used in a way that is contrary to our laws, our policies, and our values, we’ll make adjustments as we need to,” he said.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney