Divisions over spending for foreign aid widen on Capitol Hill

Foreign aid, never popular on Capitol Hill, is taking more lumps than usual this year. Differences between the Reagan administration and Congress over aid funding levels are sharper in this year of particularly stringent budget limitations. At the same time, a struggle is shaping up over policy provisions that Democratic lawmakers want to attach to the bill, but which are opposed by the White House.

The administration is asking Congress to allocate $15.2 billion to foreign aid programs in fiscal year 1988, which begins Oct. 1, up from the $13.4 billion appropriated for the current year.

Secretary of State George Shultz warned a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that a serious cut in the request would have dire consequences for the ability of the United States to exercise global influence.

``We'll have to start withdrawing from the world,'' he said.

Such pleas, however, have not elicited much sympathy on Capitol Hill. Having supported dramatic increases in foreign assistance during the first years of the Reagan presidency, Congress has exacted significant cuts in the aid budget for the past two years and seems prepared to exact additional cuts this year.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has tentatively approved a bill covering most of the foreign aid budget, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began to tiptoe through a draft of a similar bill just as Congress broke for the week-long Easter recess.

Both bills would freeze foreign aid spending at present levels. This is partly the result of an odd alliance of conservatives who have never been enthusiastic foreign aid supporters and liberals who, in the past, have been strong aid supporters but are reluctant to increase spending for fiscal '88 because of unusually strong pressure to control federal spending and meet deficit targets set by the Gramm-Rudman balanced budget act.

Some of these Democrats have added a twist to the annual foreign aid debate, claiming that foreign aid increases are impossible unless President Reagan agrees to higher taxes to help pay for them.

Mr. Reagan has repeatedly voiced his opposition to tax increases.

It may be difficult to keep the House committee's bill, which calls for $500 million more in foreign aid than provided in the budget blueprint already approved by the House, from being trimmed on the floor.

``The administration complains that we're choking the foreign aid budget, but they won't listen to us when we talk about the revenues that pay for these increases,'' says Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.

``There's no constituency for foreign aid anyway,'' he adds, ``and [the White House] is not making it any easier.''

Conflict is virtually assured between Democrats and Republicans over some policy provisions that may be written into the foreign aid bill. For example, many Republicans oppose parts of the emerging House bill that would restrict the administration's flexibility in allocating aid in Central America.

Others oppose a provision in the bill, part of current law, that prohibits the US from conditioning aid on an agreement by the recipient country to aid the Nicaraguan contras.

Foreign aid spending priorities will also be the source of increasing partisan disagreement.

The House committee maintained funding for Israel and Egypt. Israel, the largest recipient of US military and economic aid, would receive $3 billion; Egypt would get $2.1 billion. Central America and Pakistan, areas emphasized by the administration, would get $800 million and $540 million, respectively.

But committee Democrats cut nearly $1 billion out of Reagan's request for ``security assistance'' - mostly military-related aid to friendly countries - that consumes the lion's share of the foreign aid budget.

``It's too high in some areas, too low in others,'' says committee member Robert Lagomarsino (R) of California.

Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Dante Fascell (D) of Florida, offered to make some adjustments in the bill to meet Republican concerns. But there are real doubts whether any foreign aid bill will make it through Congress and past the President's desk. Such concerns are nothing new.

Controversy over the administration's aid priorities has been such that Congress has only twice been able to pass foreign aid bills during the Reagan presidency.

As in past years, however, the administration seems likely to get most of what it wants. Last year, Congress wrapped the foreign aid allotment into a catchall spending bill at year's end. This year lawmakers may be forced to resort to the same technique.

Whatever course Congress chooses, the US will send aid overseas next year. But, says John Sewell, president of the Overseas Development Council, a Washington think tank, Congress's difficulty with the foreign aid bill demonstrates that ``the consensus has evaporated as to how the aid should be spent.''

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