WASHINGTON — While the Obama administration throws its support behind Egypt's military, some members of Congress are looking at withholding some or all of America's annual $1.5 billion aid package if a civilian government isn't quickly restored.
Without the administration's support, that's a high hurdle. But after watching the violence spiral in recent days in Cairo and elsewhere, more lawmakers are questioning whether the Egyptian military's ouster of Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood-led government last week must be defined as a "coup" and how the U.S. should leverage the only significant element of influence it has in Egypt.
The administration insisted Monday that it won't withhold funds from Egypt's army after its second takeover of a civilian government in the past 29 months. Most of the money goes to the military under an arrangement U.S. leaders have honored since Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Despite rocky relations since the ouster of longtime autocrat and longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the U.S. has continued to financially support the institution it sees as Egypt's guarantor of stability.
Some in Congress say the latest military action should change the calculation because it unseated a democratically elected president.
"We need to suspend aid to the new government until it does in fact schedule elections and put in place a process that comes up with a new constitution," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Monday. He said he'd support such a measure, but acknowledged it would be unlikely to gain majority support in Congress.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was another who demanded an aid cutoff. "Regardless of what anyone thinks about Mohammed Morsi, he was elected by a majority of Egyptians last year," he said Monday.
"It is difficult for me to conclude that what happened was anything other than a coup in which the military played a decisive role," McCain added. "I do not want to suspend our critical assistance to Egypt, but I believe that is the right thing to do at this time."
In an era of tight budgets and increased doubts about the merits of financially supporting sometimes lukewarm allies like Pakistan, that position is bringing together some unusual allies.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., judged Morsi's tenure as a "disappointment" but noted that U.S. law unequivocally opposes military coups. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., lamented Monday: "In Egypt, governments come and go. The only thing certain is that American taxpayers will continue to be stuck with the $1.5 billion bill."
Under current law, however, it's President Barack Obama and his administration who decide whether Morsi's overthrow was a coup, which would trigger automatic suspension of most American support. The law was first drafted in 1985 pertaining to Guatemala's civil war; it was subsequently broadened to apply to all military overthrows of democratically elected governments and has become a key lever of congressional influence in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. halted non-humanitarian aid to Mali last year after a coup there.
U.S. officials say they're reviewing developments in Egypt, but the White House and State Department strongly backed continued U.S. military and economic assistance to Egypt on Monday.
"I'll be blunt — this is an incredibly complex and difficult situation," White House press secretary Jay Carney answered when asked whether what occurred in Egypt was a coup. "There are significant consequences that go along with this determination, and it is a highly charged issue for millions of Egyptians who have different views about what happened."
He added, "It would not be in the best interests of the United States to immediately change our assistance program to Egypt."
Congress, like the administration, is trying to reconcile democratic principles and U.S. interests.
Obama and his national security team have condemned the violence, which killed at least 51 Islamist protesters and three security forces on Monday alone, but haven't condemned the military for seizing power.
Several lawmakers have followed that lead, rejecting any immediate move to cut off aid at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood is calling for all-out rebellion against the army and any power vacuum could be filled by Islamic militant groups that might threaten stability in the Arab world's most populous country, or in Israel next door.
"It's important that we not just shoot from the hip on that," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters Monday.
Kaine, who joined five Republican senators on a trip to the Middle East last week, said close U.S. allies in the region strongly advised against halting U.S. funds for Egypt. Four-fifths of the money goes to the military and supports operations that include isolating extremist groups and helping secure Israel's borders.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the heads of the Senate Foreign Relations and the House Intelligence committees, respectively, want continued support for Egypt's military. "Cut off all aid immediately and you will take an economy that is already floundering and probably drive it into chaos, and that is not in anyone's national security interests," Menendez told reporters Monday.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was more dismissive, crediting Egypt's military leaders for doing "what they had to do in terms of replacing the elected president."
Ardent Israel supporters in the Capitol, along with evangelicals who've criticized Morsi for failing to protect Christians sufficiently and foreign policy "realists" who value stability, have refrained from undercutting Egypt's military. The powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC has stressed that while Morsi was "surprisingly compliant" to Israel, of paramount importance now is preventing extremists from using Egypt's turmoil to carry out attacks or smuggle arms into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
And even as he was calling for an aid cutoff, McCain said the administration and Congress needed to come up with "creative and lawful," if limited, forms of cooperation with Egypt's military to fight terrorism, share intelligence and maintain regional peace.
No one in the House or Senate has outlined specific proposals yet with regard to Egypt. And without an administration declaration of a coup, there is little Congress can do about aid already approved through the end of September. Secretary of State John Kerry has waived requirements demanding that he certify Egyptian progress on a democratic transition. Lawmakers would have to rewrite the law if they were to hold up money they've appropriated but the administration hasn't spent.
That leaves fiscal year 2014, where options are not significantly different. In the unlikely event Congress votes to cut funding to Egypt, it almost surely would need Obama's approval. And his administration has shown no interest so far in such action.