WASHINGTON – Leaders of a Senate committee said Tuesday that the Trump administration's 2018 budget proposal, which includes large spending cuts at the State Department, won't make it through Congress and pressed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to explain the administration's priorities.
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Senators also asked Mr. Tillerson about the administration's policies toward North Korea and Russia in his first appearance on Capitol Hill as chief U.S. diplomat.
Mr. Tillerson appeared in front of lawmakers just after announcing that an American college student, Otto Warmbier, was released from prison in Pyongyang.
Mr. Tillerson announced the news to senators but declined to comment on what led to the North Korean regime's decision to release the student or on his medical condition. Mr. Warmbier's relatives said he had been in a coma for months before his release, the Washington Post reported.
The U.S. chief diplomat said the administration of President Donald Trump has to make "difficult decisions" as it looked to cut the State Department budget by about one-third, and that the U.S. would focus its efforts on missions that deliver "the greatest value and opportunity" for Americans.
He argued that the people working at the State Department -- rather than budget priorities -- would make the State Department effective.
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"I think you know that the budget that's been presented is not going to be the budget we're going to deal with," said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Congress has a tremendous respect for the diplomatic efforts that are under way, the aid that we provide in emergency situations."
In a later session, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), chairman of the Senate panel that oversees State Department funding, said the budget request is "radical and reckless when it comes to soft power" and said it didn't reflect the threats the U.S. faces.
Asked by Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) whether the cuts to the State Department's budget were a deliberate strategy to pull back from world affairs, Mr. Tillerson said he didn't see it that way.
"I take a completely counter view to the way you've interpreted it," Mr. Tillerson said.
Explaining the administration's view, he said: "America has been leading for a very long time and American people have been reaching in their pockets and paying for this leadership for a very long time...but you, our allies, must do your part."
Mr. Tillerson will also face two House committees on Wednesday.
At a separate hearing on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he stood by his statements predating the Trump administration in which he said cuts in diplomatic support would require increases in military spending -- a way of saying U.S. outreach was as important as military force.
"I think America has two fundamental powers, the power of inspiration and the power of intimidation, and they have to work together and the State Department represents inspiration overseas," he said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Trump proposal would cut spending at the State Department and the related U.S. Agency for International Development by 32%.
Senators also asked Mr. Tillerson if he supported Russia sanctions legislation, which senators reached a deal on late Monday night.
Mr. Tillerson said the Trump administration wanted flexibility "to turn that heat up" depending on how bilateral efforts were going.
"We have some channels that are open where we're starting to talk," he said, pointing to efforts related to Syria and Ukraine, and said he wouldn't want to close them off.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), in the afternoon hearing, asked Mr. Tillerson about ongoing talks with Russia to possibly return recreational compounds owned by Russia, which the U.S. seized in retaliation for Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"This is part of how we take some of the irritants out of the relationship," Mr. Tillerson said, saying the U.S. also is raising its own concerns with Russia as part of this channel, including harassment of U.S. diplomats.
Lawmakers in the afternoon session also said they were concerned about cuts to embassy security, which Mr. Tillerson said could be explained in part by how the U.S. is committing to certain projects, and that the U.S. has increased funds for diplomatic security, the law-enforcement arm of the State Department that protects diplomats and embassies.
Sens. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.) and Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) asked Mr. Tillerson about a report released Monday about possible illicit trading networks benefiting North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
Mr. Tillerson said he stressed the necessity of cracking down on North Korea's trade in every bilateral meeting he has, and said that North Korea's intricate financial networks are "difficult, but not impossible to address."
He said Russia and China are key players in this effort, and that the U.S. would raise North Korea sanctions in a high-level meeting with the Chinese next week.
--Gordon Lubold contributed to this article.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 13, 2017 18:26 ET (22:26 GMT)