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Obama asks Republican Senators McCain, Graham to visit Egypt

Senators John McCain (R-AZ) (L) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) confer at the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington March 5, 2013. REU
Senators John McCain (R-AZ) (L) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) confer at the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington March 5, 2013. REU

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has asked two senior Republican senators to travel to Egypt to meet with its military leaders and the opposition, as Cairo's allies struggle with how to address the turmoil convulsing the country.

Senator John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, hope to travel to Egypt next week, Graham said on Tuesday.

"The president reached out to us, and I said obviously I'd be glad to go," Graham told reporters outside the Senate. "We want to deliver a unified message that killing the opposition is becoming more and more like a coup" and to encourage the military to move toward holding elections.

He said specifics of the trip, including with whom he and McCain would meet, had not yet been worked out.

McCain and Graham, two of the Senate's most influential voices on foreign policy matters, have at times been harsh critics of Obama's foreign policy. The White House has recently been reaching out to them on a range of issues.

U.S. officials have been grappling with how to respond to the situation in Egypt since its elected Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, was ousted by the military on July 3.

In particular, they have struggled with how to handle the $1.55 billion in mostly military aid Washington sends to Cairo each year. Egypt has long been an important U.S. ally in a tumultuous region and officials in Washington value their ties to its military leaders, many of whom have studied in the United States.

U.S. law bars sending aid to countries in which there has been a military coup, and Obama administration officials have been scrambling to talk about events in Egypt without using the word.

GLOBAL ANXIETY

Mursi is being held in a secret detention facility in Egypt. Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, on Monday became the first outsider to see him since he was deposed. His fate - and a deadly crackdown by security forces on his supporters - has raised global anxiety about a possible bid to crush Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood.

Senator Rand Paul has introduced an amendment to a Senate transportation funding bill that would end military aid to Egypt under the law banning aid after coups and redirect the money to domestic infrastructure projects.

Senate Republicans discussed how to deal with the amendment during their weekly lunch meeting on Tuesday. It could come to the Senate floor for a vote on Wednesday, although it was not expected to win much support.

The Obama administration has made clear it does not want to make a decision about events in Egypt - or the aid. Obama's Democrats control hold a majority of seats in the Senate.

Several Republicans, including McCain, Graham and Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also said they thought the situation in Egypt was too fluid for a vote so soon.

"I may come to think we need to cut off aid, but I'd like to go over there and talk to the military and to any members of the government and Brotherhood factions to find out what is going on the ground, and send a clear message to the people in charge of Egypt that there are certain expectations here in America that are bipartisan in nature," Graham said.

Corker said he felt Washington needed to weigh in one way or the other on whether the situation in Egypt was a coup, and look at changing the law if necessary.

"We can't just leave it hanging out there. We are a nation of laws. That's where we need to go," he said. "But now is not the time, September is the time to do after we know the best route forward."

(Editing by Jackie Frank)

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