How the Senate resolution on Egyptian democracy died

How the Senate resolution on Egyptian democracy died

Last fall, a bipartisan group of senators led a months-long drive to pass a resolution calling for greater freedom and democracy in Egypt. The resolution died last December due to a fatal mix of divided loyalties, lobbying influence, and secret Senate holds.

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) led the effort to press Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to move toward more free and fair elections via a Senate resolution (PDF) which called for "supporting democracy, human rights, and civil liberties in Egypt." First introduced last July, the resolution quickly gained the support of a range of senators, including Al Franken (D-MN), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Sam Brownback (R-KS).

The resolution’s supporters tried several times to bring it up for a Senate vote, once before the August congressional recess, again before the Egyptian parliamentary elections in November, and then again during the post-election lame-duck session. But due to the objections of two key senators and secret holds by two other senators, the resolution never saw the light of day on the Senate floor.

"It’s too bad; it was blocked by members on both sides of the aisle and the administration opposed it too. It was not helpful; it sent all the wrong signals to Egypt," McCain told The Cable on Tuesday in an interview. "We called for observers to monitor the elections, and we got no support from the administration on that either."

In addition to calling for election monitors, the resolution urged Mubarak to fulfill his promise to lift the emergency law in Egypt, release political prisoners, and respect human rights. It also would have called on the Obama administration to emphasize political reform and human rights in its dealings with the Mubarak regime.

According to three senior Senate aides who worked on the issue, the two senators who were most active behind the scenes to prevent the resolution from moving forward were Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Roger Wicker (R-MS). Feinstein, as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had concerns about the resolution’s effect on the U.S. relationship with the Mubarak regime and worried that it would jeopardize U.S.-Egyptian cooperation on a range of sensitive national security issues.

Wicker, these three Senate aides said, worked against the resolution’s passage in part due to his long-standing relationship with a top Washington lobbyist, Wicker’s former House colleague Bob Livingston, whose firm was being paid by the government of Egypt under a years-long lobbying contract.

Livingston’s firm makes up one-third of the entity known as the PLM Group, a lobbying entity created to advocate on behalf of the Mubarak regime. The firm also includes Tony Podesta and former Democratic Congressman Toby Moffett. According to the Washington Post and disclosure filings, Mubarak has paid PLM over $4 million since 2007.

While PLM was lobbying against the resolution, Livingston personally called Wicker to ask him to do what he could to stall the measure. When asked by The Cable on Tuesday about his opposition to the resolution, Wicker said, "I would have to refresh my recollection."

An aide to Wicker confirmed to The Cable that Wicker did in fact talk with Livingston about the resolution, but the aide said that Wicker was simply doing his due diligence to make sure the resolution was not pushed through hastily.

"Senator Wicker’s main goal was to make sure the resolution was worded in a way to make sure the resolution was productive and to make sure that Egypt was recognized as an ally and a partner," the aide said.

Phil LaVelle, a spokesman for Feinstein, would not discuss the senator’s effort to alter the resolution to make it more acceptable to the Egyptians, but he did acknowledge that her office stood in the way of the resolution for a time.

"Senator Feinstein had initial concerns; we worked with the co-sponsors to get those concerns resolved, and at the end of the day she did not object to its passage," LaVelle told The Cable.

It’s true that during the lame-duck session, when a pared-down version of the resolution was being circulated for the third and final time, neither Wicker nor Feinstein formally objected to it. But they didn’t have to. In November, two unnamed Democratic senators placed secret holds on the resolution, preventing it from being brought up by unanimous consent and effectively killing its chances of moving forward.

None of the Senate aides who spoke with The Cable know which two Democratic senators secretly held up the resolution in the end. But for the resolution’s supporters, the episode is a stark illustration of how Washington policy over Egypt was caught in a tangled mess of competing interests and how broad bipartisan efforts can be torpedoed by a small number of lawmakers.

For McCain, the resolution was a missed opportunity for the U.S. government to put pressure on Mubarak so that the revolt might not have happened and to show the world that America stands behind the principles of democracy and human rights.

"We want to make sure we’re ahead of events and not behind," he said. "And we’ve got to make sure we’re on the right side of history."