By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A leading senator warned Egypt's military-led government on Friday that "the days of blank checks are over" as an Egyptian army team huddled with State Department officials to discuss the future of $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who chairs the Senate subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, issued a blistering attack on Egypt's crackdown on local and U.S.-funded pro-democracy groups and warned that Congress could block future aid unless changes are made.
"We want to send a clear message to the Egyptian military that the days of blank checks are over. We value the relationship and will provide substantial amounts of aid, but not unconditionally," Leahy said in his statement.
Leahy joined a growing number of U.S. lawmakers from both political parties who have expressed outrage over the swoop on non-governmental organizations, which has seen a number of U.S. staffers barred from leaving Egypt.
In two joint letters released on Friday, more than 40 U.S lawmakers warned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's ruling military council, that U.S. aid to the Egyptian military hung in the balance.
"The absence of a quick and satisfactory resolution to this issue will make it increasingly difficult for congressional supporters of a strong U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship to defend current levels of assistance to Egypt," the letters said.
Senior State Department officials met a visiting Egyptian army delegation on Thursday and Friday and outlined both the U.S. position on the NGOs and the new conditions that Congress recently imposed on future U.S. military assistance.
Those conditions require Clinton to certify that Egypt's military-led authorities are meeting benchmarked steps toward democratic reform before any new aid package is released.
"They did talk about the assistance certification process," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing.
"We consult regularly with Congress, and we also, when we're talking with the Egyptians, make it very clear what Congress is asking us to do in terms of assistance."
The Egyptian Embassy in Washington had no immediate comment on the meetings on Friday, but the military delegation is expected to hold more meetings next week with U.S. lawmakers to discuss the situation.
Toner said that U.S. officials including Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman repeated demands that the NGOs' U.S. staffers be allowed to leave.
"We want to see the travel restrictions on these American citizens raised. But in addition, more broadly, we think that the Egyptian government needs to address the status of these non-governmental organizations," Toner said.
Leahy, echoing comments from other senators earlier in the week, said that if the Egyptian government pressed its "assault" on the NGOs, it would mean that several certification requirements could not be met.
"I hope the Egyptian authorities fully appreciate the seriousness of this situation and what is at stake," Leahy said, referring to U.S. assistance which has run about $1.3 billion annually and is a central pillar of Washington's relationship with Cairo.
"They need to permit these organizations to reopen their offices, return the confiscated property, end investigations of their activities and the activities of Egyptian groups, and register them without conditions," he said.
The Egyptian crackdown on the NGOs, which include the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, have exacerbated strains between Washington and its long-standing Arab ally since the overthrow last year of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising.
Those strains tightened last week after an Egyptian judge placed a travel ban on a number of U.S. staff of the two NGOs, which are loosely affiliated with the major U.S. political parties. A handful of those affected, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have taken refuge in the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
Egyptian officials say the crackdown is part of a probe into foreign funding of non-governmental organizations.
But civil society groups say the military council ordered the raids to harass activists who were at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak revolt and are now demanding the army hand power immediately to civilians.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Sandra Maler)