Pompeo defends State Department budget before skeptical Congress members

Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress reject President Donald Trump's proposed cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid budgets as dangerous to national security, setting the stage for a budget battle with the White House.

Budget 'signals to the world that the Trump foreign policy is one of disengagement' — Democrat

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies at a House's appropriations cubcommittee hearing on the State Department's budget request for 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress rejected President Donald Trump's proposed cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid budgets as dangerous to national security on Wednesday, setting the stage for a budget battle with the White House.

Representative Eliot Engel, Democratic chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, said Trump's proposal was "dead" as soon as it arrived in Congress at the second of two House of Representatives hearings where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced lawmakers skeptical about the budget plan.

"This budget … signals to the world that the Trump foreign policy is one of disengagement," Engel said.

The ranking Republican on the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees State Department spending, Hal Rogers of Kentucky, described the budget plan at an earlier subcommittee hearing as "woefully inadequate" to cover the administration's foreign policy and security goals.

The proposal slashes the State Department and aid budget by about $11 billion US to $40 billion, he said.

Even the top Republican on the committee, Hal Rogers of Kentucky, expressed displeasure with a budget proposal that would slash $11 billion US. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

"Given what the world looks like right now, this approach seems detached from reality," Rogers said, citing the need for U.S. leadership in a world with millions of displaced people, more countries facing instability and rising tensions.

Democratic Representative Nita Lowey of New York who chairs the full appropriations committee and the subcommittee, also rejected the "draconian" cuts.

"I am astonished that three years into his administration, the president still does not appreciate the merits of sustained investments in diplomacy and development," she said.

Border wall, pro-life policies criticized

In written remarks ahead of the hearings, Pompeo said the budget sought to double funds for countering China's increased aggression, and strengthen systems to target Russia's growing threats to the United States and Western world.

"China is proactively applying its power and exerting its influence in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond," Pompeo said, adding: "This budget prioritizes countering Russian malign influence in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia, and further strengthens the Department's own systems against malign actors."

Florida Democrat Lois Frankel argued that the policy focus of the administration would have detrimental effects for the health and well being of women in developing countries. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Pompeo said resources would also fund work to reach a deal with North Korea on curbing its nuclear program and push back against Iran's role in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

He said the budget also requests new authority to support a democratic transition in Venezuela, including transferring up to $500 million to foreign assistance accounts.

"The day and week after is going to be a long process," Pompeo said of Venezuela's rebuilding after years of economic and humanitarian crisis.

"I've seen estimates of between $6 and $12 billion," he added.

Trump's proposal calls for spending more U.S. taxpayer money on the military and a U.S.-Mexico border wall, while overhauling social safety-net programs in a budget plan likely to die in Congress but live on in his 2020 re-election campaign.

Democrat Lois Frankel of Florida called Trump's budget proposal "embarrassing and dangerous."

Several Democrats sharply criticized an expanded anti-abortion policy, which cuts funding to groups that provide abortion services or give abortion advice.

"The institutions of [Organization of American States] should be focused on addressing crises in Cuba, Nicaragua and in Venezuela, not advancing the pro-abortion cause," Pompeo said on Tuesday.

He was announcing the enforcement of the Mexico City Policy, named as such since it was unveiled at a UN conference in 1984 and became one of the centrepiece social policies of the conservative administration of Republican former President Ronald Reagan.

"Your administration is abortion obsessed," said Frankel, adding that removing funding for women's health issues had "devastating effects" for the health of women around the world.

Committee Republicans said they backed the policy. Representative Martha Roby of Alabama thanked Pompeo for his stance.

Optimistic but vague

Pompeo was reluctant to detail the administration's plan and timeline for releasing an Israeli-Palestinian peace developed by White House advisers Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law.

He said the proposed plan sought to tackle areas of a Middle East conflict that previous U.S. administrations had failed to resolve.

"Our vision will demonstrate our commitment that we want Palestinians to have a better life as well," Pompeo said, adding that he hoped the Palestinians would view the U.S. as a "fair arbiter."

Trump has drawn criticism for strongly defending the closeness of the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Pompeo told a congressional hearing the Trump administration is still working "all across the government" to identify those responsible for the murder of the Washington Post columnist.

"We will continue to work to identify those who are responsible for Jamal Khashoggi's murder and hold them accountable," he said.

Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi's murder, and Pompeo told reporters late last year he had not seen any intelligence directly connecting the operation to kill Khashoggi in Istanbul to the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Pompeo was pressed by Democrat Barbara Lee of Texas about proposed cuts in funding to African countries. She said Trump sought cuts of 56 per cent to Ghana, 33 per cent to Ethiopia, 14 per cent to Mozambique, 44 per cent to South Sudan, and 71 per cent to South Africa, mostly in global health funding.

"This is after a well documented track record of controversial statements from the president identifying certain countries as 'shithole' countries, and quite frankly, attitudes toward the continent in general," said Lee.

Pompeo pushed back at the criticism, saying the gist of the question was "in my judgment fundamentally unsound."

He said the State Department had assessed each country based on economic, security and political behaviour.

The Trump administration has called for steep cuts to diplomacy three years in a row. Each time, lawmakers have largely ignored the requests. 

For example, the administration has proposed cuts in aid to Latin America ranging from 20 to 40 per cent, including in the Central American countries that are source of many migrants travelling in the caravans toward the U.S. border that Trump abhors. Congress has rejected those plans, keeping funding relatively stable for the region compared to previous years.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press