WASHINGTON — Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain have been asked by President Barack Obama to travel to Egypt next week to urge the military to move ahead on new elections, the senators said Tuesday.
Egypt has been roiled by deadly protests since President Mohammed Morsi was toppled in a military coup on July 3, developments that have threatened the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. military and economic aid to the Arab world's most populous country. Responding to reporters' questions Tuesday about an attempt to cut off the aid, Graham offered up word that Obama has sought the help of the two lawmakers.
"The president asked Sen. McCain and myself to go to Egypt next week, so we're trying to find a way to get there," Graham said. "So we can go over and reinforce in a bipartisan fashion the message that we have to move to civilian control, that the military is going to have to, you know, allow the country to have new elections and move toward an inclusive, democratic approach."
Graham said the two senators were trying to work out the logistics of the trip at the same time Congress was scheduled to begin its summer recess. McCain provided few details on the trip, but he said that he and Graham would try to assist in the reconciliation process in Egypt.
"The place is in turmoil, obviously," the Arizona senator said. "We have credibility with everybody there, all the different factions there."
Graham said the stakes were high. "If Egypt goes and Israel is surrounded by more and more radical regimes ... we'll regret not doing everything possible to keep Egypt on track as a stable society," the South Carolina senator told reporters.
Graham said the idea of "maybe us going if things deteriorate" in Egypt was first discussed at a July 17 meeting at the White House. McCain and Graham sat down for nearly two hours for a wide ranging national security discussion with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Obama contacted Graham about the trip, although the president specifically requested that McCain, who was Obama's opponent in the 2008 election, go too, McCain said.
Graham said the goal was to deliver a unified message that "jailing the opposition is more and more like a coup."
Last week, the Obama administration told lawmakers that it won't declare Egypt's government overthrow a coup, which would prompt the automatic suspension of American assistance programs under U.S. law. The administration fears that halting such funding could imperil programs that help to secure Israel's border and fight weapons smuggling into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
The White House declined to comment about a possible trip.
The Senate was scheduled to vote Wednesday on a measure by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would end aid to Egypt, shifting the money to crumbling bridges in this country.
"We tell other countries to follow the rule of law, yet our own administration fails to do so. Sending money to Egypt under their current military coups is illegal," Paul said in a statement. "Instead of illegally sending that money overseas, we are better off spending that money at home."
Graham said a vote now could send the wrong signal.
"If you cut off aid, that's a destabilizing event," Graham said, while a vote for aid would "give people the impression everything's fine."
Asked whether the Paul bill might pass, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: "I hope not."
"I do agree we need to comply with laws that we have in our country," he told reporters, adding that Congress may change the coup restrictions in September to give the president waiver authority to continue providing aid. "Right now, in the middle of this volatile situation, we need to be a voice of calm."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has called for halting assistance to Egypt, but he said Paul's proposal was "too extreme."
"I'm in favor of suspension," Levin said. But he would support gradual resumption of aid as the government "lives up to the commitments that they make in the constitution, having a diverse Cabinet, having elections according to the six-month schedule."