WASHINGTON: The US House of Representatives approved a bill on Friday outlining the foreign aid section of the new US spending plan for fiscal year 2012, which began on October 1 and the Democratic-run Senate was expected to pass it by this week's end.
Aid in war zones helped boost the overall amount the United States was willing to commit to foreign assistance in a time of budget scarcity, despite deep cuts advocated by budget hawks in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
But numerous countries, including Pakistan and Egypt, still could see a decline or even a halt to US foreign assistance if they do not meet conditions attached to the legislation.
The legislation provides $42.1 billion in regular funding for the State Department and foreign aid in 2012, which is a cut of more than $6 billion from the 2011 level.
The legislation allocates $850 million for a fund to help Pakistan's military develop counter-insurgency capabilities to fight militants within its borders. This is a slight increase from last year's $800 million but less than the $1.1 billion President Obama requested for the fund in 2012.
However, a massive defense bill Congress passed on Thursday freezes 60 percent of this amount, or $510 billion, until the US defense secretary provides lawmakers with assurances that Pakistan is working to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs). US lawmakers say that many Afghan bombs that kill US troops are made with fertilizer smuggled by militants across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
No number was included for economic aid to Pakistan, leaving the Obama administration to specify the amount in consultation with Congress. This is a comedown for Pakistan; in each of the past three years, about $1 billion or more in economic aid for Pakistan was written into spending bills, in part to meet pledges made under 2009 legislation sponsored by Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar.
Economic as well as security aid was made conditional on Pakistan's cooperation in fighting militants such as the Haqqani network. Many lawmakers have been calling for aid to Pakistan to be reduced since US special forces found and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 2.
The 2012 spending plan is a mixed bag, said Liz Schrayer, the executive director of the US Global Leadership Coalition, which advocates for diplomacy and development aid.
"In the short term, we are pleased the agreement avoids the deep and disproportionate cuts to these programs from earlier versions of the bill ... However, in the long-run, the cuts to funding for non-war related program is of grave concern given the challenges and turbulence in the world today."
John Norris of the Center for American Progress think-tank said the cut to USAID operations was significant, "but it doesn't look like a cut that would grind operations to a halt, bringing messy contingency planning and staff reductions."
Still, he said "there is a great deal of uncertainty hanging over" US foreign aid.