WASHINGTON Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lobby lawmakers this week on the need to keep billions of dollars in aid flowing to Egypt and other countries caught up in a spasm of violent anti-American protests across the Muslim world.
The State Department said Clinton intended to meet with Congress later this week to discuss the protests, which saw U.S. diplomatic missions attacked and the U.S. ambassador to Libya killed amid fury over a film produced in the United States that many saw as an insult to Islam.
Republican lawmakers are calling for an investigation into the attacks amid suspicions in Republican circles that the Democratic administration is trying to tamp down inquiries about the events as the November 6 presidential election looms.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had hoped to hold a public hearing on Egypt this week. She reluctantly called it off after the Obama administration refused to send any witnesses and instead offered a private briefing for lawmakers, a congressional aide said.
Officials said Clinton's meetings on Capitol Hill have not yet been scheduled and they gave no details about the format.
But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Clinton would be ready to answer lawmakers' questions, both about the attacks and about the future of U.S. policy in a region tipping further into crisis.
"They will want to have a full assessment of what happened, what we know, what measures we took at the time, what measures we're taking going forward to continue to protect our personnel and our facilities," Nuland said of Clinton's meetings, which are tentatively expected to take place on Thursday.
Nuland said Clinton also planned to stress the importance of continued U.S. support, which includes $1.3 billion for Egypt's military; proposals for up to $1 billion in debt relief for Cairo; and a further $800 million in economic assistance for other countries in the region.
Republican lawmakers are calling for an investigation into last week's attacks, the most violent of which saw the U.S. consulate in Benghazi stormed by gun-wielding militants in an assault that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. personnel.
A bill introduced by Republican senators Jim DeMint and Bob Corker would require the Obama administration to report to Congress within 30 days on the attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt and Yemen, and to submit proposals for beefing up security within 90 days.
U.S. and Libyan officials are investigating the incident, with help from the FBI.
Libyan officials have suggested the consulate assault was planned in advance rather than a spontaneous reaction to the U.S.-made video. U.S. officials have said that preliminary information did not indicate the incident was planned.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Monday rejected this, saying he believed the assault was a coordinated attack mounted by al Qaeda or its affiliates.
"It points to severe lapses of security in a region where likely attacks can be anticipated," Graham said in a statement. "The bottom line is statements by the Obama administration must be properly scrutinized, and that is the proper role of Congress."
The explosion of anti-American anger, which saw embassies attacked in Yemen, Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt and elsewhere, has presented U.S. President Barack Obama with an unexpected foreign policy crisis as he heads into the final months before the November presidential election.
It also looks likely to fuel debate in Congress about the future of U.S. aid to the region, which already was being questioned as lawmakers ponder widespread cuts to deal with the ballooning federal budget deficit.
Even before last week's attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions, Ros-Lehtinen had blocked nearly $26 million in U.S. economic aid from being spent in Egypt and Representative Kay Granger had placed a "hold" on $18.3 million of the same funds, congressional aides said.
MAINTAINING U.S. LEVERAGE
U.S. aid to Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in elections following the ouster of strongman Hosni Mubarak, has been repeatedly caught up in politics as the United States seeks to maintain its leverage with Cairo.
The Obama administration in March allowed $1.3 billion in military aid to continue despite misgivings among prominent lawmakers over the role of the country's military in the democratic transition, and it is now finalizing a debt relief package of up to $1 billion to help the country's new Islamist leaders stabilize their badly wounded economy.
The Obama administration also has proposed an $800 million fund for fiscal 2013, which starts in October, to help other countries swept by "Arab Spring" revolutions, many of which in recent days have seen crowds of protesters take to the streets to denounce the United States.
But the House appropriations committee last spring refused to provide a separate fund for supporting Arab spring reforms. Final decisions for spending in fiscal 2013 have not been made.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Bill Trott)