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Congressional Proposal on Foreign Aid Shields Israel, Middle East from Cuts

December 14, 1994
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Despite widespread fears that Israel will suffer a cut it foreign aid under a Republican- controlled legislature, Congress’ new point man on aid has proposed protecting the Middle East from any reduction in American assistance.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R – Ky.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations in the new Congress, unveiled his vision of a new foreign aid program on Monday.

His proposal shields Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, as well as European countries, from a 20 percent foreign aid cut that he would apply everywhere else.

“Foreign aid needs to be relevant to the modern would, and we have to square that relevancy with fewer funds,” McConnell said at a Senate news conference where he distributed the 48-page bill he plans to introduce when Congress convenes Jan. 4.

Backing Israel’s $3 billion and Egypt’s $2 billion annual aid package, McConnell said, “Security interests of our nation are directly affected by stability in the Middle East.”

The pro-Israel lobby was quick to respond.

McConnell’s bill is a “very broad and positive endorsement of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said an official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“The bill is very basic and covers all the bases for aid to Israel,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

In fact, McConnell’s plan increases aid to the Middle East by $100 million to allow for special assistance packages to support some aspects of the peace process.

Although McConnell supports aid in general to the Middle East, he said he would not back aid to Syria even if a peace agreement with Israel is reached.

The chances of Congress doling out said to Syria are “slim or none,” he said.

Many pro-Israel activists breathed a sigh of relief as McConnell reiterated his strong support for Israel this week.

At the same time, some activists expressed concern that drastic cuts not only to foreign aid but also to domestic programs – while leaving aid to Israel intact – leave Israel and American Jews open to a potential anti-Israel backlash.

The U.S. will spend $13.7 billion on foreign aid in fiscal year 1995. Although the program amounts to less than I percent of the entire federal budget, foreign aid continues to draw opposition from some lawmakers who argue the money is better spent on domestic programs.

“This bill is a new lease on life for foreign aid,” McConnell said, acknowledging that many of his colleagues in congress have targeted foreign aid.

“If we don’t produce real changes in how we administer foreign aid and do that soon, we will end up with no foreign aid at all,” he said.

One of McConnell’s primary responsibilities as the subcommittee chairman will be to shepherd the foreign aid bill through the legislative process.

While the task of reorganizing the foreign aid program falls under the responsibility of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the actual spending bill comes under McConnell’s domain.

Congressional spending is a two-fold process with an authorization bill that defines specific programs and an appropriations bill that, in essence, writes the check.

In order to prevent two floor debates on foreign aid – one in the authorization process and a second in the appropriations process – Congress has not passed a foreign aid authorization bill since 1986.

Instead lawmakers have continued to use the old authorization bill as the basis for the annual appropriations process, which has received close scrutiny in committee hearings and during floor debates.

Although McConnell’s bill guts aid to Africa and forces states outside the Middle East and Europe to complete for shrinking foreign aid dollars, his position in much friendlier than that of Helms, who is an outspoken opponent of foreign aid.

Last month, Helms compared the foreign aid program to throwing money down “foreign ratholes.”

Helms has not decided if he will back McConnell’s plan, according to a Helms’ aide, “but he most definitely will hold hearings early next year.”

Although Helms plans to hold hearings on a foreign aid authorization bill, most observers, including McConnell, do not expect a bill to emerge from that process.

Thus, while Helms’ positions will clearly influence the foreign aid debate, he will have no formal role in the appropriations process.

“My subcommittee will probably be producing the only bill we pass this year in this area,” McConnell said.

While McConnell’s proposal helps to clarify how the Senate will proceed in the foreign aid debate, sentiment in the House is less certain.

Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), who will chair the relevant House subcommittee on appropriations, has, during a decade in Congress, never voted in favor of a foreign aid bill, according to an aide.

However, the aide said that as chairman, Callahan will now “take a hard look at changing his position.”

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