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House rejects Trump’s Middle East aid cuts

The House spending bill calls for far more assistance to North Africa.
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 04:  Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), participates in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, November 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony from State DepartmentÊofficials onÊU.S. policy after Russia's escalation in Syria.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Congress rejected the Donald Trump administration’s proposed cuts to Middle East aid today, in some cases even voting to increase assistance over the current year’s budget.

While the State Department request for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 sought deep cuts across the board, members of the House foreign aid spending panel made clear they wouldn’t be touching aid to key US allies such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. In addition, the House state and foreign operations bill released today makes clear that the administration's proposal to turn some foreign military financing grants into loans is also a nonstarter.

“Funds appropriated or otherwise made available under this heading shall be nonrepayable,” the bill states.

The fiscal year 2018 bill specifically sets aside “not less” than $1.28 billion in total aid for Jordan — Trump sought only $1 billion — and $150 million in economic assistance for Egypt, twice more than the $75 million called for in the Trump budget. A summary of the House bill, meanwhile, specifies that military assistance to Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco should remain “at or above current levels,” overriding the administration’s effort to zero out Moroccan military aid, which stood at $5 million in the fiscal year 2017 request.

Tiny Tunisia, however, is the biggest winner, following an intense push by Tunis and its US allies. While the Trump administration had sought a 61% cut over the current year’s request (from $140.4 million to $55 million), the House bill instead appropriates “not less” than $165.4 million for Tunisia.

In addition, the bill also backs loan guarantees for Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. And it seeks more details on the administration’s strategy in North Africa with language requiring the State Department to report on its engagement strategy in the region and explain how it intends to prioritize diplomatic engagement and assistance.

The House released its bill just days after Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed visited Washington to lobby Congress and the administration against the aid cuts. Chahed discussed US counterterrorism assistance and military support with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on Monday prior to meeting Vice President Mike Pence, but also found time to reach out to members of Congress who were keen to stress the importance of maintaining military assistance to the small North African state.

“We equally commend American financial assistance that contributed in helping our young democracy overcome our economic and security hardships,” Chahed said at an event at the conservative Heritage Foundation on Tuesday. “We remain hopeful that the assistance will be, if not further strengthened, at least preserved in its 2017 levels as Tunisia is going through an exceptional and critical phase in its history.”

Chahed cited the threat from the Islamic State and other terrorist groups to justify continued US security assistance.

“Any discontinuation will send the wrong message to those terrorist groups,” Chahed told Al-Monitor. “Any discontinuation will immediately … burden Tunisia at this vulnerable point.”

The prime minister also warned that cutting military assistance could endanger the United States.

“Today terrorism is a global phenomenon and what happened in the North Africa region does not stay in the North Africa region,” he said.

Chahed's outreach to Congress appears to have been largely successful. At a dinner with members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said that “supporting Tunisia is in the national security interests of the United States.”

The Senate, which has yet to release its version of the foreign aid spending bill, appears to share the sentiment. Speaking at the Heritage event alongside Chahed, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said, “I can assure you that the Congress of the United States, Republican and Democrat, will not allow these cuts to take place.”

McCain said one of his colleagues, a South Carolina Republican who chairs the foreign aid subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, would also act to prevent the cuts. “I promise you Lindsey Graham will not let that happen,” McCain said.

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