Is the White House using Congress to send tough messages to Mubarak?

Is the White House using Congress to send tough messages to Mubarak?

Congress is out ahead of the administration in calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down and for the United States to cut off military aid to his regime. But while some believe the White House is using Congress to send Mubarak tough messages they don’t want to — or can’t — send themselves, it appears that Congress is reacting to events independently from the administration.

Thursday evening, all 100 senators passed a resolution that calls on Mubarak to immediate transfer power to an interim caretaker government, for that government to immediately begin a transparent process toward a free election, for the presence of international election monitors on the ground in Egypt, and "expresses deep concern over any organization that espouses an extremist ideology, including the Muslim Brotherhood."

The resolution was led by two unlikely bedfellows, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ).

Congress’s stance is markedly more assertive than that of the Obama administration, which still won’t publicly call for Mubarak to leave office immediately. And the administration is not going anywhere near making comments about the Muslim Brotherhood.

Experts said the administration actually benefits from having a Congress that sends stronger messages and places outside pressure on the Egyptian government.

"Whether it’s a conscious or unconscious, there’s a useful good cop bad cop element to all this. The administration doesn’t have to overtly threaten aid to the military, but it’s very useful for the Egyptian military to know that their aid could be cut off," said the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan. "I wouldn’t be surprised if the administration, without engineering this, welcomes the pressure from Congress."

But both the White House and the Senate argue strenuously that any benefits from this dual messaging are purely accidental, and Congressional moves such as the Kerry-McCain resolution are not being coordinated with the White House.

"This legislation was crafted by Senators Kerry and McCain without input from the White House," National Security Staff spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.

"The White House was not consulted. The resolution was the product of an agreement between Senator Kerry and Senator McCain," SFRC spokesman Frederick Jones said to The Cable.

Even Kerry’s Feb.1 op-ed in the New York Times, which was also out ahead of the administration’s message at that time in calling for Mubarak to step aside, was not coordinated with the White House, Jones insisted.

So what about McCain’s call on Wednesday for Mubarak to step aside now? At the time, due to McCain’s meeting with Obama earlier that day, that seemed like an idea coordinated with the White House. But no, both sides insist that was not a move planned in conjunction with the White House.

"Senator McCain has been closely monitoring the situation in Egypt and the region as a whole – its McCain being McCain," said McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan, who pointed out that McCain sponsored a similar resolution last year with Sen. Russ Feingold. The Cable reported this week that resolution died during the lame duck session.

There are other signs that Capitol Hill’s tough message on Egypt is not following a White House lead. On Thursday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Ops, declared that U.S. aid to Egypt was on hold until the crisis gets sorted out.

"The fact of the matter is, there’s not going to be further foreign aid to Egypt until this gets settled," Leahy told Congressional Quarterly. "Certainly I do not intend to bring it through my committee."

That’s exactly the opposite of the message administration officials are sending to Egypt, considering that they are depending on their relationship with the Egyptian military to provide leverage in helping guide the crisis back to some measure of stability.

"We will evaluate the actions of the government of Egypt in making and reviewing decisions about aid. That continues," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Feb. 3.

The administration’s position on aid to Egypt was supported on Thursday by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is expected to become the next ranking Republican on Leahy’s subcommittee. On the Senate floor on Thursday, Graham asked lawmakers to "consider the consequences of such an action. Give the Egyptian people a chance to work this out."

Experts who are in touch with the administration agree that while the administration has been consulting with Capitol Hill, the notion that the two branches are working together on coordinating the U.S. government’s message to Egypt just isn’t true.

"Congress is just being Congress," said the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons.