Tillerson defends State dept. cuts, says America is ‘leaning in’

Tillerson defends State dept. cuts, says America is ‘leaning in’
© Greg Nash

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday pushed back against a bipartisan onslaught of criticism of President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s proposed cuts to the State Department budget, which senators labeled as an indication that America is in retreat.

“Our message is, we’re leaning in,” Tillerson told a Senate Appropriations subpanel, arguing that the department could do more with less by marshaling outside resources and cutting red tape.

Senators hit Tillerson for supporting cuts to programs they said helped keep America safe.

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“I think this budget request is in many ways radical and reckless when it comes to soft power,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration We are running out of time to protect Dreamers US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE (R-S.C), a frequent Trump critic and the subcommittee chairman.

Cuts to non-discretionary spending in general and at State in particular, he said, “would not even begin to move the debt needle,” but would devastate American foreign policy.

“You’re gonna have a hard time convincing me that soft power can take a 29 percent cut,” he said, before delineating a list of strategic challenges the U.S. faces and the proposed cuts to programs addressing those challenges.

Among them: cutting aid to Georgia, which is aiding the U.S. in war in Afghanistan and has been intimidated by Russia; cutting aid to Sri Lanka, which is situated in important shipping lanes and cutting funding for refugee absorption programs to Jordan, all while dealing with Russia, preparing for the aftermath of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and planning for a more powerful China. 

Graham also noted that cutting funds for embassies is part of the administration’s budget blueprint, adding, “We all remember Benghazi.”

“The world’s going to hell in a handcart,” he said.

On the Democratic side, ranking member Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign America isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Your tax dollars fund Afghan child rape MORE (D-Vt.) said the cuts represent a “retreat,” are “internationally irresponsible,” and would lead to the US “undermining our own economic and national security interest.”

The lawmakers’ case was bolstered by the written testimony submitted by 16 of the nation’s top retired generals and admirals, who said foreign cuts would make America less safe.

“It is clear to us that strategic development assistance is not a charity,” wrote the group, which included Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Adm. Mike Mullen and Gen. David Patraeus. “It is an essential, modern tool of US national security.”

Tillerson responded that the proposed cuts, even to the worthiest of programs, were the result of difficult decisions in a budget that prioritizes hard power. 

"I have never believed, or experienced, that the level of funding devoted to a goal is the most important factor in achieving it," he said.

The State Department is completing a “listening tour” to begin reorganizing, and will publish its findings in August. Changes to help clear obstacles for State employees would be underway in 2018.

He also said that a workforce reduction would be completed without firings, relying on attrition and possibly incentivized buyouts. 

Tillerson elaborated on how some of the funding changes would affect U.S. foreign policy. A 27 percent proposed cut to international organizations such as the UN, he said, would not be even for all bodies. In particular, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog responsible for monitoring the Iran deal, would receive enough funds to properly function, Tillerson said.

Cuts to programs such as Fullbright scholarships and others that successfully encourage girls education, he said, might be made whole through private philanthropy, or asking for more funding from governments who benefit from the programs.

Senator Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats turn on Al Franken Minnesota's largest newspaper calls on Franken to resign Democratic senator predicts Franken will resign Thursday MORE (D-Il.) said that some cuts could not be balanced through proposed efficiency gains. 

“You don’t settle a problem by throwing money at it, unless the problem is lack of money,” he said.

But Tillerson may not have to work as hard to cut funds as the Trump budget – a nonbinding proposition -- suggests. 

Graham said the proposal created constraints from “artificial spending numbers that are gonna change.”

Even GOP members of Congress have expressed dissatisfaction with the sharp cuts in the president’s budget blueprint.