WASHINGTON -- Congress staked out a more assertive role in Persian Gulf policy yesterday, invoking its power of the purse to blunt two controversial Bush administration initiatives.
Democratic and Republican members of the House appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations told flustered administration officials that President Bush's plan to forgive Egypt's $6.7 billion military debt to the United States faced certain defeat if brought to a vote now.
Mr. Bush called subcommittee Chairman David R. Obey, D-Wis., yesterday morning to ask for his help, but at the end of a four-hour hearing Mr. Obey told Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger that the proposal "would go down in a heap" if the administration insisted on taking it to the House floor.
Meanwhile, Representative John P. Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on defense, branded as "unacceptable" a proposal by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney that the Pentagon be allowed to spend allied contributions for the gulf operation without prior congressional approval.
The appropriations committees decide how taxpayers' money gets spent and are the most powerful instruments of congressional authority over the federal bureaucracy.
To underscore Mr. Murtha's point, the full House passed an amendment to the defense bill that would require congressional approval before any donated funds could be spent on Operation Desert Shield.
Forgiving Egypt's debt is a central plank of the administration's strategy for shoring up the United States' few friends in the Arab world.
Egypt's economy was in a shambles before the gulf crisis and is suffering even greater strains today. The debt had been a sore point in U.S.-Egyptian relations to begin with, and forgiving it would be seen as a major concession to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a faithful ally in a difficult region.
"President Mubarak is and must continue to be the solid foundation of Arab leadership in the gulf crisis," Mr. Eagleburger said. "President Mubarak has done the right thing; we are all in his debt as a result."
Panel members joined in praising Mr. Mubarak but said that gratitude, like all things, had its limits.
"This is for me a very difficult issue," said Representative Mickey Edwards, R-Okla. "Egypt has been absolutely pivotal in this crisis. Without the full support of Egypt, we could have never mobilized the rest of the Arab world.
"I absolutely agree that we have to provide some relief," he added. "The question is whether forgiving the entire $7 billion in debt is too generous." Mr. Edwards said he could support a restructuring of the debt.
Many members said they were concerned that other debtor nations would demand the same treatment, but Mr. Eagleburger insisted that no precedent would be set by forgiving Egypt's debt. But he said negotiations were under way with Israel on an aid package that would "balance" concessions to Egypt.
At a time when the federal deficit is certain to force cuts in domestic programs, no member of Congress wants to vote to forgive a $6.7 billion foreign aid debt.
"To the American people, this will look like a $7 billion payoff," warned Representative Robert J. Mrazek, D-N.Y. "No one is forgiving equipment loans to American farmers; no one is forgiving mortgage loans to American homeowners."