- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2000

Congressional leaders, fearful that President Clinton is secretly promising up to $40 billion in U.S. aid toward a Middle East peace accord, warned the president yesterday to stop ignoring lawmakers if he wants them to approve a deal.
As the seventh day of talks between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak concluded without a deal at Camp David, the top three House Republicans reminded Mr. Clinton in a letter that Congress is the "sole authority" for spending money on a pact.
"We expect to be kept fully appraised of all aspects of the negotiations prior to entering into any commitments on behalf of the United States," wrote Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay. "Your administration must work in concert with the Congress."
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Mr. Clinton still hopes the parties will reach an agreement before the president leaves tomorrow morning for the summit of G-8 industrial leaders in Okinawa, Japan.
"I think the pace and the intensity have both quickened," Mr. Lockhart told reporters late yesterday. "The meetings continue in a serious and intensive way… . I do expect them to go late into the evening."
The leaders are negotiating over the fate of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jewish settlers in occupied territory, control of Jerusalem and the boundaries of a proposed Palestinian state.
Some lawmakers are fuming that the administration is keeping Congress in the dark about the cost of a Middle East agreement. And there is growing frustration in Congress at the prospect of funding what many lawmakers view as Mr. Clinton's vain attempt to concoct a foreign-policy legacy.
Rep. Sonny Callahan "is very concerned that a lame-duck administration looking for a legacy … might be willing to write a blank check to get an agreement," said Jo Bonner, spokesman for the Alabama Republican.
White House aides flooded Congress yesterday with phone calls to reassure House and Senate leaders that the administration does not have a price tag yet for any Middle East accord. But the assurances were greeted with skepticism on Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers are anticipating a request for anywhere from $17 billion to $40 billion over several years.
John Czwartacki, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said any U.S. aid that Mr. Clinton pledges would amount to "empty promises" without congressional support.
"Congress has to be a partner in this," said Mr. Czwartacki.
Several Hill sources yesterday expressed anger at what they called the administration's "refusal" to brief Congress on the talks. In the absence of substantive reports from the White House, congressional staffers resorted to translating Israeli news reports from Hebrew to glean any intelligence about the negotiations.
The total cost of implementing a peace agreement could be $120 billion to $140 billion, according to those reports, with the U.S. contribution in the range of $17 billion to $30 billion. About $100 billion would pay for relocating refugees Palestinians, Syrians, Jordanians and Lebanese.
But Capitol Hill sources admitted that Congress is out of the loop so far on the cost of any proposal.
"The House has not received any information from the president on what he's promising," said a House Republican leadership aide, adding that any Middle East funding request from Mr. Clinton would face strong opposition.
"Nobody wants to spend $40 billion on the president's legacy," the aide said. "Forty billion in Medicare is enormous. That's the easiest thing in the world to sell: Your tax dollars are going to someone else."
Other observers, however, predicted tough talk in Congress against more foreign aid could melt away in the face of lawmakers' fear of being perceived as opposed to peace in the Middle East.
"I know it's going to be met with extreme skepticism on the Hill," said Marshall Wittman, director of congressional affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "That is not to say that the Republicans on the Hill won't eventually sign off on it."
The letter from House Republican leaders said the Camp David summit "represents an enormous opportunity to bring long-awaited security to the Middle East." They pledged "our unwavering support for efforts to secure a just and lasting peace."
A senior House Republican staffer who works closely on such issues said Congress probably would not vote on an aid package until next year and that the funding likely would be tied to congressional reviews and monitoring.
"Are people skeptical of giving money to Yasser Arafat? Yes," the staffer said. "But there's a willingness to move forward. The devil is in the details."
Dov Zakheim, a former Reagan administration defense official and an adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said yesterday the framework for a Palestinian-Israeli agreement dates back to a 1991 conference in Madrid convened by President Bush.
"It's important for people to understand this is bipartisan," Mr. Zakheim said in an interview from Saudi Arabia. "This is not really from the Camp David of President Carter. This is a direct line from the Madrid conference that President Bush organized."
Mr. Zakheim said the wide range of cost estimates for a peace agreement tells him that "they really haven't sat down and worked out the details yet. These are very, very rough estimates."
There is also some reluctance among lawmakers to spend more money on a Middle East agreement so soon after Congress appropriated $1.8 billion in 1999 on the Wye River peace accord brokered by Mr. Clinton.
Andrew Cain contributed to this report.


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