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U.S. lawmakers could ease 'coup' ban on aid to Egypt

A girl holds Egypt's flag as she attends a sit-in protest organized by supporters of the deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi in Cairo J
A girl holds Egypt's flag as she attends a sit-in protest organized by supporters of the deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi in Cairo J

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers will begin to vote as soon as next week on legislation that could continue aid to Egypt even if the Obama administration determines that the ouster of elected President Mohamed Mursi was a military coup, lawmakers and aides said on Thursday.

The United States sends $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid to Egypt each year, but the military coup label would cut off the flow under a U.S. law dating to the 1980s.

As a result, the White House and State Department have so far refused to characterize Mursi's ouster as a coup, with administration officials often resorting to verbal gymnastics to avoid using the word.

Republican U.S. Representative Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House of Representatives subcommittee in charge of the aid, said her panel could consider allowing more flexibility, such as language that would allow the aid to continue if doing so were deemed to be in the U.S. national security interest.

Granger said she is not considering changing the coup language but that it was possible for Congress to change it to make it more flexible.

"There is not a waiver (provision) in the coup legislation," Granger told Reuters in an interview. "That could be changed, however, if the Congress says we are going to allow a waiver."

The law as currently written bans the administration from waiving the restriction, even if the administration judges it to be important for national security.

PAKISTAN AID PRECEDENT?

Congress approved President George W. Bush's request to allow aid to Pakistan's government after the September 11, 2001, attacks, despite the ouster of its government in a coup.

Lawmakers said a similar bill was one possibility for Egypt. They said another possibility would be rewriting the law on foreign aid to allow waivers for national security reasons more routinely.

The House subcommittee is due to begin considering the fiscal 2014 aid to Egypt this month, possibly as soon as next week.

The Senate subcommittee also expects to vote on its version of the legislation this month, likely during the week of July 23, aides said.

After the state and foreign operations subcommittees of the House and Senate appropriations committees debate and vote on their versions of the bill, the measures will be voted on by the full committees before being sent for a vote by the full House and Senate.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate panel, has said he considers Mursi's ouster a coup, although the ultimate determination is up to the administration. A spokesman said the Senate panel is not now considering a provision in its legislation to waive the coup requirement.

However, Senator John Boozman, a Republican subcommittee member, said he was open to the possibility of a waiver, depending on the situation in Egypt.

"With the situation as it is now, I would certainly be open to having that discussion," he told Reuters. "And right now my tendency would be to vote for the waiver and, again, we'll just have to wait and see what happens."

President Barack Obama asked Congress to appropriate $1.55 billion in aid for Egypt for fiscal 2014, including $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance.

Committee members and aides from both panels said it was too soon to comment on whether they would approve that level of aid, because the situation in Egypt is changing so rapidly.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Mohammad Zargham)

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