Foreign aid debate moves to appropriations process

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WASHINGTON — Having concluded a bitter partisan feud that erupted over foreign aid in the House last week, lawmakers and activists are focusing on what is likely to become the real action in the debate.

Certain of a presidential veto, the House bill has become virtually irrelevant in the ongoing debate over foreign aid. As a result, the action has shifted from the House floor, which passed an authorization bill that would substantially slash U.S. overseas assistance.

Now, members of Congress and activists are concentrating efforts on the appropriations process, where the money is actually spent.

Congress must pass an appropriations bill, signed by the president, in order to spend money.

In contrast, authorization bills, which set spending targets and guide debate, are not required.

With the foreign aid debate a politically difficult one, Congress has often sought to avoid the authorization process. As a result, no foreign aid authorization bill has become law in 10 years.

This year, however, Republican lawmakers, anxious to reduce spending and reshape the foreign aid program, have pushed forward with the authorization process.

The House passed the measure 222 to 192 last week, after days of sparring between Democrats and Republicans.

Jewish groups also were divided over the process, even though Israel's annual $3 billion in aid was secure.

Some groups joined Jewish Democrats and the Clinton administration in arguing that an overall reduction in foreign aid was not in the interest of the United States.

Some also believed that a cut in foreign assistance today would leave Israel vulnerable to cuts in the future.

Although the Senate is scheduled to take up an authorization bill next week, observers expect the real action to take place in the appropriations process, which is already under way in the House.

Despite the shift, lawmakers and activists agree that Israel's aid is almost a sure thing. However, the amounts other countries will receive is the topic of heated debate, and one over which Jewish groups remain concerned.

Jewish groups are most concerned about the fate of aid to Egypt and the Palestinians. Also of concern to some groups is continued aid to African nations and the former Soviet Union.

"We try to get as big a foreign aid package as possible," said Neal Sher, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

AIPAC came under fire from some Jewish groups and Jewish Democrats for supporting the House foreign aid authorization bill, which gutted aid to Africa and other countries.

At the same time, however, AIPAC, which leads the charge on the hill for Israel's foreign aid, successfully lobbied lawmakers to restore $1 billion to the total foreign aid package, Sher said.

Last year, the Congressional Black Caucus emerged as a staunch supporter for foreign aid. This year, Jewish Democrats in the House banded together with the caucus to oppose the authorization bill, which substantially eliminated aid to Africa.

Although no one knows what the final bill will look like, Capitol Hill insiders predict that members of the Black Caucus would support the spending bill.

"I'm sure the Democrats who voted against the [authorization] bill will support the appropriations bill," said an aide to a leading member of the Black Caucus.

"Members generally like Israel and support Israel, but they had a point to make on the authorization bill," the aide said.

The mood has clearly shifted on Capitol Hill.

In the wake of the authorization bill debate, members and their staff on both sides of the aisle were quick to criticize AIPAC.

Democrats charged that AIPAC had "abandoned" the foreign aid program, while Republicans countered that the pro-Israel lobby "failed to deliver" additional support from pro-Israel Democrats.

But now that the House has begun work on the spending bill, cooperation is the buzzword.

For its part, AIPAC is looking to the future.

"There's no rift," Sher said. "AIPAC's position was understood on both sides of the aisle.

"Our focus is now on the appropriations process," he said.

Congressional aides agreed that there is no lasting damage from the sparring over the bill.

"Technically, the authorization bill is irrelevant anyway," said one congressional aide working on foreign aid. "This is where it counts and we will work together."

Said another aide, "We're all pros, we know in the end that we have to have a bill."

The process has already begun. Last week, Democrats and Republicans banded together to write the first of many drafts of the foreign aid appropriations bill.

Using the budget resolution as a guide, members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations proposed slightly more than $11.99 billion on foreign aid, keeping true to chairman Sonny Callahan's (R-Ala.) promise to keep spending under $12 billion.

The measure, which has the full support of AIPAC and other Jewish groups,includes $3 billion for Israel, $2.1 billion for Egypt, $75 million for the Palestinians and an additional $25 million in loan guarantees for the Palestinians.

The bill would also spend $528 million on African nations and $595 million on states of the former Soviet Union, now known in Congress as the Newly Independent States, as well as $671 million for refugee assistance, including $80 million for Israel.

The full House Appropriations Committee was scheduled to vote on the bill yesterday. If approved, the full House is scheduled to take up the measure June21. Congressional insiders predict that the bill will pass but caution that Israel's aid is becoming harder to defend.

"There can be no cut while the talks are going on with Syria but we all know that argument can't hold much longer," an aide close to the process said.