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US House Considers Foreign Relations Bill

House lawmakers are considering a $22 billion spending bill to fund the State Department, and other foreign relations spending needs over the next two years. Key portions aim to help protect U.S. diplomatic interests abroad, strengthen efforts to prevent nuclear and missile technology from falling into the hands of terrorists, and promote democracy around the world.

The Foreign Relations Authorization Act provides money for the State Department, U.S. international broadcasting, refugee assistance, international organizations, and aid to key nations over the next two years.

In line with a Bush administration request, it includes funds to upgrade and protect U.S. embassies and facilities overseas, and help with strengthening U.S. diplomatic missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The legislation aims to strengthen U.S. public diplomacy efforts, including U.S. international broadcasting, which includes the Voice of America and other government-funded radio and television stations.

Lawmakers gave particular attention to helping U.S. government efforts against terrorism.

Democrat Tom Lantos describes on of the key provisions which aims to disrupt or eliminate black markets for transfer of nuclear materials.

"The Nuclear Black Market Elimination Act, which is included in our bill, will authorize sanctions against individuals and companies that provide nuclear enrichment technology to countries which do not have it, or have not signed the additional IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] protocols relating to verification," he said. "Our initiative will help prevent nuclear weapons technology from getting into the hands of terrorists and rogue states."

On bilateral aid issues, the bill would begin a process of making non-military assistance to Egypt subject to benchmarks for democratic and human rights reforms beginning in 2007.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer is an Oregon Democrat and a key House critic of U.S. aid policy toward Egypt.

"This bill starts to move us away from the preponderance of military aid and move that same dollar amount but to humanitarian [assistance]," he said.

Minority Democrats complained bitterly that majority Republicans blocked amendments that would have made wider debate possible on issues ranging from the war in Iraq, to Sudan and U.S. counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia.

Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings was infuriated by a Republican-backed amendment declaring opposition to any premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq until it is clear that doing so would not threaten stability.

"Republicans are pulling out every political maneuver they can to regain the support of the American people for a war that has not uncovered any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and certainly not made us any safe today than we were three years ago," he said.

Republicans countered by saying all of these issues had been thoroughly debated at the committee level.

Consideration of the bill revisited two issues the House had already previously voted on.

Trying to ensure eventual approval by the whole Congress of a U.N. reform bill the House passed in June, Republican Henry Hyde included it in the foreign relations bill to improve chances it will become law. He also re-introduced and the House approved by voice vote, an amendment rejected by the House last week, aimed at deterring European Union arms sales to China.

The Foreign Relations Act includes sense of Congress declaration supporting what it calls transparent full democracy in Iran. And it requests reports to Congress on U.S. counter-terrorism aid to African nations, U.S. efforts to support stability in Haiti, and steps to counter internet jamming by repressive foreign governments.