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US Congress Debate Focuses on Aid to Mideast Countries

U.S. economic and military assistance to key countries in the Middle East has been the focus of more debate in Congress. This and other foreign policy issues came up as the House of Representatives considered a $20 billion bill that includes money for President Bush's AIDS initiative and other key programs. The House passed the bill Tuesday night, with 393 yes votes versus 32 no votes.

As with similar legislation Congress has considered, the foreign operations bill was crafted against the background of the tight federal government budget outlined earlier this year by President Bush.

The bill contains just over $20 billion for 2006, which is some $2.5 billion less than President Bush asked for.

Included is money for a range of programs, such as the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID), Peace Corps, President Bush's $15 billion AIDS initiative, and the Andean Counter-drug Initiative, also known as Plan Colombia.

On country-specific provisions, the bill provides $220 million for Pakistan, mentioning specifically Pakistani efforts to hunt down terrorists along with the border with Afghanistan.

Afghanistan itself receives $430 million, $205 million more than in 2005. But just over half of this could be withheld under the legislation, until the Bush administration certifies the Afghan government and provincial leaders are cooperating with narcotics eradication and interdiction efforts.

There was sharp debate over assistance to Egypt, which the Bush administration considers an ally in the war on terrorism.

Egypt would get $1.3 billion for military assistance, and $535 million in economic aid. However, Republicans as well as Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to reduce military aid to Egypt in favor of economic assistance, arguing this would help push Egypt toward democratic, human rights, and other reforms.

The House rejected an amendment, by Pennsylvania Republican Joseph Pitts, that would have diverted $750 million from military aid for Egypt to child survival and health programs.

"Reducing Egypt's military subsidy by $750 million will serve to send a strong message," said Congressman Pitts. "Money sent to a nation, even a strong ally like Egypt, that refuses to make the necessary political, democratic and human rights reforms should be re-directed to a place that better represents our values."

President Bush's request for aid to Israel of $2.3 billion is fully met by the legislation, including $240 million in economic aid and an increase of $60 million in the amount for military aid.

Other controversial provisions involved U.S. counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia, and the question of U.S. funding for foreign military financing and training.

Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern, who wanted to eliminate $100 million from the Andean Counter-Drug Initiative, had this exchange with Republican Tom Davis:

McGovern: "This policy has failed as an anti-drug policy, it has failed as a human rights policy, and it has failed to have any impact whatsoever on reducing the availability, price or purity of drugs on the streets of America."

Davis: "I think this is a time to reaffirm, not dismantle, our commitment to this program, to the people of Colombia, and to the American people who want illegal drugs off their streets."

On international military training, Democratic lawmakers expressed concern the legislation does not place conditions on such aid, mentioning in particular Indonesia and Guatemala.

"For the first time since Indonesian military-backed militias laid waste to East Timor in the wake of its August 1999 independence referendum, we will provide FMF [Foreign Military Financing] to Indonesia free of any conditions," said Congresswoman Nita Lowey. "And despite the Guatemalan government's non-compliance with military reforms stipulated in the peace accords, we have removed IMET restrictions on that country as well."

The House did not approve more than $450 million in economic and security aid for Iraq, saying the administration should find it elsewhere.

President Bush also did not get as much as he wanted for the Millenium Challenge account, which rewards countries making democratic and free market reforms.

Though Democrats were unsuccessful in their attempt to increase money for President Bush's HIV/AIDS initiative, the legislation does provide $131 million more than the president requested, and provides $500 million more than in 2005, including money for the Global Fund on AIDS.