GOP cuts to embassy security draw scrutiny, jabs from Democrats

Republicans have sought to cut hundreds of millions of dollars slated for security at U.S. embassies and consulates since gaining control of the House in 2011.

Democrats are scrutinizing the GOP proposals in the wake of attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East, one of which saw Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans murdered.

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“This is a disturbing example of the Republicans’ meat-ax approach to cutting every aspect of the government, no matter how essential,” said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) in a statement to The Hill.

Republicans hit back, saying the GOP-controlled House has voted for money to ensure the safety of diplomatic staff overseas, and accused Democrats of using last week’s violence to score cheap political points.

“It is extremely distasteful that some ill-informed Democrat staff are using the instability and violence abroad to score cheap political hits,” said Jennifer Hing, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee.

“For over a decade, the Congress has made strong and necessary investments to ensure the safety and security of our diplomatic facilities and staff overseas,” Hing said.

“These investments will continue to be a priority, and the committee will continue to make decisions that focus funding on programs that have the most benefit to the American people — both here and abroad.”

Democrats enacted $1.803 billion for embassy security, construction and maintenance for fiscal 2010, when they still controlled the Senate and House. After Republicans took control of the House and picked up six Senate seats, Congress reduced the enacted budget to $1.616 billion in fiscal 2011, and to $1.537 billion for 2012.

The administration requested $1.801 billion for security, construction and maintenance for fiscal 2012; House Republicans countered with a proposal to cut spending to $1.425 billion. The House agreed to increase it to $1.537 billion after negotiations with the Senate.

The administration requested $1.654 billion for the State Department’s Worldwide Security Protection program for fiscal 2012. House Republicans proposed funding the program at $1.557 billion. Congress eventually enacted $1.591 billion after the Senate weighed in.

For fiscal 2013, the administration requested $2.15 billion in funding for the worldwide security protection program, a larger increase from the previous year. The House countered with a proposal to increase the program to $1.934 billion.

The House appropriations bills funding the State Department and foreign operations for fiscal 2013 and 2012 did not receive floor votes as standalone bills. Instead, they were used or intended as starting points for negotiations with the Senate and the administration.

A normally obscure disagreement over funding levels to improve embassy security has taken on new relevance in the wake of the attack in Libya and violent protests at U.S. embassies in Yemen, Tunisia and Indonesia.

Republicans argue last week’s attacks are the result of a weak foreign policy under President Obama, and a top adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign last week said they would not have happened under the GOP nominee’s watch.

“There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation,” Romney adviser Richard Williamson told The Washington Post. “For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we’ve had an American ambassador assassinated.”

But Democrats argue the security cuts pushed by Republicans mean diplomats would be more vulnerable if the GOP controlled both the White House and legislative branch.

“When House Republicans protect budget-busting tax breaks for millionaires first, and slash embassy security, they reveal that their tough talk on national security is really just hollow words,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

A House Republican aide said the Appropriations Committee gave Obama all of the $689 million he requested for security upgrades under the embassy security, construction and maintenance portion of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Agencies bill.

But House Republicans did not meet the president’s request for the department’s worldwide security protection program, which funds local guards and security enhancements such as bollards to restrict vehicle traffic, according to an aide familiar with the debate. Embassy security, construction and maintenance funding covers structural renovations, such as increasing a building’s distance from a public road and reducing vulnerability to car bombs.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who formerly headed the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the State Department, has worked to improve the security of diplomatic facilities since the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. That effort has resulted in the completion of 94 new diplomatic facilities and the transfer of 27,000 people to more secure places, according to a House GOP aide.

But the GOP aide acknowledged, “In these tight budget times, the committee has had to make some tough choices to prioritize funding.”

Embassy security funding will be reduced further if automatic spending cuts established by the 2011 Budget Control Act take place as scheduled. Under the so-called sequestration process, embassy security, construction and maintenance funding would shrink by $129 million, or 8.2 percent.

The State Department is constantly renovating its embassies and consulates to improve their security in the face of evolving threats.

“An embassy built 50 years ago is not going to have the same security capabilities,” said a Democratic aide familiar with the program.

Another aide with knowledge of the State Department’s efforts to improve security said the consulate in Benghazi, where Stevens and other Americans died, was considered a “temporary facility.” It was not on the administration’s request list for structural improvements for fiscal 2012 or 2013, according to the source.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, which is controlled by Democrats, sought lower funding levels compared to the administration’s request for State Department security programs and embassy security, construction and maintenance. But it proposed more generous allocations than did House Republicans.

The Senate versions of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Agencies appropriations bills for fiscal 2012 and 2013 proposed $396 million more than House legislation for the department’s security programs, including for local guards.

The Senate bills for 2012 and 2013 called for $245 million more for embassy security, construction and maintenance, compared to the House bills.