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 Trump administration 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."
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."
Later Tuesday, Mr. Tillerson will face the Senate Appropriations Committee subpanel that oversees the State Department budget. He will face two House committees on Wednesday.
The Trump proposal would cut spending at the State Department and the related U.S. Agency for International Development by 32%.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), chairman of the Senate panel that oversees State Department funding, where Mr. Tillerson will testify Tuesday afternoon, said he is deeply concerned about Mr. Tillerson's proposed cuts.
"This budget is devastating to soft power," Mr. Graham said. "I'm going to make an argument that soft power is very important to win the war against terrorism, it's important for our national security, and when you look at the hard/soft power mix of this budget, it's way out of kilter."
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.
Sens. Cory Gardner (R., Colo) and Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), asked Mr. Tillerson about a report released Monday about possibly illicit trading networks benefitting North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
Mr. Tillerson said he stressed the necessity of cracking down on North Korea's trade in bilateral meetings, 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.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 13, 2017 12:55 ET (16:55 GMT)