Campaigns spar over funds for embassy security in Ryan budget

Democrats are hitting Mitt Romney over the House GOP budget's potential cuts to embassy security as the Republican candidate and his allies on Capitol Hill seek to make inadequate protection in Libya a campaign issue.

Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), put forward a budget blueprint this year that would have cut non-defense discretionary spending by 19 percent by 2014. While the blueprint doesn't specify cuts to embassy security, the Obama campaign says applying that figure across-the-board would yield a $300 million reduction in State Department funding for the protection, construction and maintenance of U.S. embassies around the world.

The Romney campaign, though, is dismissing those claims, countering that since the Ryan budget didn't specifically recommend cuts to embassy security, it's unfair to draw the conclusion that Republicans would have slashed funding.

Romney has made the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last month a centerpiece of his attacks on the Obama administration’s policies. Romney and congressional Republicans have questioned whether the compound received adequate security that could have prevented the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans there. The Obama campaign, though, has pushed back at those suggestions.

"The president certainly doesn’t need lectures on securing our facilities overseas from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who’ve proposed slashing funding for our diplomatic and embassy security by $298 million dollars" just in 2014 alone, an Obama campaign official told The Hill.

"The cuts to embassy security in the Romney-Ryan budget would amount to $170 million more than even under sequestration. Gov. Romney talks a lot about projecting American power overseas, but it’s unclear how he would do that under the budget he’s endorsed that cuts funding for critical State Department programs and security,” the official added.

The Romney campaign, though, says there was no reference made to cutting embassy security because there were no assumed cuts to embassy security. But the Ryan budget doesn't exempt embassy security from cuts, either.

"The only candidate who has proposed cuts to our embassy security is President Obama," said a Romney campaign official, in reference to the president signing sequestration into law.

The Obama campaign official said House Republicans have left a $900 billion gap in terms of where their cuts would come from over the next decade. Republicans have a responsibility to spell that out, the official said, and until they do Democrats will operate under the assumption that they would have been applied across the board.

In March, Jeffrey Zients, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that “since the House refused to specify what would be cut, we consider the impacts if the cuts are distributed equally across the board.” 

The dispute over the budget for embassy security comes as the Romney campaign makes a push on foreign policy, with the GOP candidate slated to give a major address on the topic Monday.

House Oversight panel chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is also holding a hearing on embassy protection Wednesday morning after several whistleblowers complained that the State Department rejected requests for beefed up security.

Among the politically charged evidence already made public ahead of the hearing is a State Department email from May 2012 rejecting the continued use of a DC-3 airplane by Special Forces troops assigned to protect embassy staff in Libya; they were told to use Libyan flights instead to get around the country after commercial flights were reestablished. It's not clear that providing the plane would have made any difference, especially since the security detail left the country in August.

Democrats counter that those kinds of hard choices would only be tougher under Ryan's budget, which Issa himself supported along with all but 10 House Republicans.

Throughout the campaign, Romney has sought to pin the blame on Obama for deep defense spending cuts that are slated to take effect next year if lawmakers fail to find other ways to cut the deficit.

Democrats, though, hope to undermine that hawkish image by raising doubts about his running mate’s budget proposal.

Under so-called sequestration, which Ryan and many other Republicans voted for, funding for diplomatic and consular programs would be cut by about $1 billion next year, according to a Sept. 14 analysis by the White House budget office. That includes a $129 million cut to the “Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance” budget category and another $2 million cut to the “Protection of Foreign Missions and Officials” category, for a total of $131 million. The figure is expected to be roughly the same for 2014, because the sequestration cuts remain at roughly the same level throughout the decade.

Ryan, by contrast, phases in the cuts. His budget called for a 19 percent across-the-board cut to non-defense discretionary spending in 2014, according to Zients, much deeper than the 8.2 percent cut under sequestration. Assuming an across-the-board distribution of the cuts, his proposal would have slashed the first category by $298 million and the second by $5 million, for a total of $303 million – $172 million than the cut under sequestration.

The new Obama line of attack highlights the difficulties Romney faces in distinguishing between his budget proposals and those of his running mate Ryan.

Romney has in the past endorsed Ryan's budget. The Republican candidate has said he's “very supportive” of Ryan's budget blueprint and said earlier this year that it would be “marvelous” if the Democratic-controlled Senate passed it, which didn't happen.

But since picking the House Budget Committee chairman as his running mate, his campaign has said the GOP ticket will run on Romney’s budget proposals and not necessarily Ryan’s. Democrats though have sought to link Romney to proposals from the House GOP that the Republican candidate has not directly endorsed.

This story was updated at 10:21 p.m.