The Obama administration won't call the military overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi a coup, but as violence escalates in Egypt, experts argue the U.S. is losing credibility abroad.
President Barack Obama said he "deplores violence in Egypt," and canceled joint military exercises with the country, but he hasn't called it a coup, because under the law doing so would require his administration to cut off the $1.5 billion in military aid the U.S. gives to the country.
Experts, however, agree that a clever game of word avoidance doesn't shield the U.S. from honoring its own law — the Consolidated Appropriations Act— which dictates the overthrow of a duly elected head of government is enough to suspend aid.
"The law is clear," says Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "It is only complicated when we are willing to ignore the law in the name of politics, which sets a very negative precedent and sends a negative message to those watching U.S. policy."
Since the military massacred hundreds of Morsi supporters Wednesday, Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle have begun applying more pressure to the administration to use its aid as leverage.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called on the president to act during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"The acts of the last few days by the Egyptian military are completely unconscionable and I do believe we have to change our aid," Reed said.
And Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday on ABC that "the actions of the last week are no doubt going to cause us to suspend aid."
But Congress would need to find broad bipartisan support to act without the administration's blessing, something that experts say appears unlikely.
"If things continue to worsen, I wouldn't rule it out as a possibility, but it doesn't now have very broad support," says Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. "There are members of Congress who are interested in this, but the support is generally limited."
An amendment to suspend aid to Egypt introduced by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., failed 83 to 13 in the Senate in July, but that was before the violence escalated.
Congress could use the upcoming fight over the continuing resolution, a stopgap measure to fund the government through the end of the year, to pressure the White House to cut the aid, but Congress would need a two-thirds majority to overcome a White House veto. And there are still a number of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, who fear halting the aid would send Egypt into the arms of U.S. adversaries like Russia and China, who might be more willing to supply arms.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a member of the House Homeland Security and Intelligence Committee, warned cutting off aid to Egypt could destabilize the region further.
"We should maintain our relationship with the military. I would be reluctant to be cutting off aid," King said on Fox News Sunday. "I would not want to undercut them and allow the Muslim Brotherhood to come back."
Foreign policy experts worry, however, that the longer the administration waits to pull aid, the more damage it does to its reputation abroad. Under the law, the administration has eight months to halt the aid to allow time for the government to set up a democratic process. But Egypt has yet to set up an election process, a sign that the country may descend into civil war.
"Whether it is Syria or Egypt, we put forward red lines, but we are not willing to back up its rhetoric. It is a dangerous place to be," says Hamid. "At some point the only way to know if you have leverage is to use it."