WASHINGTON – The State Department, bowing to congressional criticism, abandoned on Tuesday its plan to bill U.S. citizens for evacuation from Lebanon.
The White House and State Department cited federal law requiring such reimbursement. But Democratic congressional leaders, charging that the administration was slow in its evacuation response, urged President Bush to waive any charges.
“It’s too bad this is being treated as a mini-Katrina,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declared that it was not the “intent of Congress” that Americans sign papers promising payment before they are taken out of harm’s way.
Hours later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reversed course.
“We want to do everything we can to facilitate the departure of American citizens from Lebanon,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “Today’s step removes one potential worry for our citizens at this difficult time.”
At the height of the political brouhaha over the fees on Capitol Hill, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., had moved to abolish them for those who could not pay. But it was unclear when – or if – the legislation might be approved by Congress.
The State Department had sought unsuccessfully to quell the gathering storm, even as a sealift was being mounted to transport U.S. citizens from Lebanon to Cyprus.
“No one, no American citizens, will not be boarded because they left their checkbook or their credit card at home,” said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs.
At issue is a 1956 law amended for fiscal year 2003 to authorize the State Department to evacuate Americans endangered in foreign country by war, civil unrest or natural disaster on a “reimbursable basis to the maximum extent practicable.”
In this case, the cost could be no more than commercial airfare from Lebanon to Cyprus, about $200.
Americans seeking U.S. Embassy help in leaving the country had been asked to sign promissory notes, which Harty portrayed as part of the registration process.
At least 25,000 Americans were believed to be in Lebanon a week ago, when Israel began attacking Hezbollah and other targets after two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped.