Republicans overwhelmingly united with Democrats on Wednesday to continue funding aid to Egypt, despite U.S. law requiring a suspension of aid to countries that undergo a military coup.
In a 86-13 vote, the Senate moved to table an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul that would’ve redirected $1.5 billion in aid to bridge construction and repair in the United States and suspend further aid to Egypt until the country holds elections.
Despite the landslide vote, the issue prompted a heated debate on the Senate floor with Republican senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Bob Corker lashing out at Paul for adding the amendment to a transportation and urban development appropriations bill.
"It would be a terrific mistake for the United States to send a message to Egypt: you’re on your own," McCain said on the Senate floor. "I urge my colleagues to vote to table the Paul amendment."
Paul punched back, noting that the Foreign Assistance Act, first enacted in 1961, requires a suspension of foreign aid to any country that undergoes a coup. "How do we lead by example when we’re not going to obey our own laws?" Paul inquired. "When the president refuses to acknowledge that it’s a coup … Americans should be outraged and insulted by such blatant shirking of the law. Either we’re a nation of laws or we’re not."
The remarks seemed to cause certain lawmakers to blink, if only slightly.
"Yeah, it probably fits the definition of a coup," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) before noting that the U.S. could simply not afford to lose its leverage with the Egyptian military. "If it’s not going to be [U.S.-supplied] F-16s, you’re going to find yourselves with MiG-29s coming from Russia."
"Why are we selling weapons to Egypt?" added Graham. "If we don’t, someone else will."
Inhofe joined 32 other Republicans in voting against the amendment, including Paul’s rumored 2016 presidential primary rival Sen. Marco Rubio. "Our foreign aid should be restructured, not simply cancelled," said Rubio.
The timing of the vote comes as the Egyptian military continues its crackdown on the deposed Muslim Brotherhood, gunning down some 80 people in the streets of Cairo this week. Paul also used the bankruptcy of Detroit to haul out an oft-repeated Tom Friedman catchphrase about nation-building at home. "The American people don’t want good money after bad shoveled and sent overseas. They want to fix some of the problems we have at home. They want to do some nation building here at home."
But the more interventionist wing of the Republican Party clearly won out on Wednesday, as senators lined up to table the amendment, noting the preference of Israelis to continue the aid, which is seen by some as a guarantor of peace between Egypt and Israel.
"I have a letter here from AIPAC. I asked them to comment," said Graham, before reading the statement aloud: "We do not support cutting off all assistance to Egypt at this time."
Paul rejected the notion that the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee speaks for the entirety of pro-Israel supporters. "There is no unified statement from the nation of Israel," he said. "If you talk to the people, the grassroots and not the so-called leadership you’ll find a much different story."
The most interesting vote of the day came from the senior senator from Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted for the Paul amendment. A typically orthodox voter on foreign policy issues, McConnell has become less predictable as national conservative and Tea Party groups consider backing a challenger for his 2014 primary race.
It remains unclear if opponents of aid to Egypt will get a better opportunity to change the long-standing policy in the Senate. Sen. Robert Menendez , chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, promised to allow debate on issue in his committee, but Paul said he had tried and failed to raise the issue in that venue. "They don’t want this debate," he said.