Tillerson faces strong pushback on diplomatic budget cuts

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faced harsh bipartisan criticism on Tuesday as he tried to defend the Trump administration's proposed slashing of America's diplomatic and foreign aid budget.

Testifying before two Senate committees, Tillerson faced tough questions about the administration's proposal to cut funding for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development by more than 31 percent in the fiscal year beginning in October.

The chairman and ranking members of both committees said the budget is a non-starter and represents an abdication of American leadership. The proposal would cut the diplomatic and development budget from $54.9 billion to $37.6 billion.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he told his staff that had given up going through the budget line-by-line because it was a "waste of time" given that lawmakers would reject it.

"The reason it was a waste of time is I think you know that the budget that's been presented is not going to be the budget we're going to deal with," Corker said. "It's just not."

Tillerson, who is overseeing plans for a major reorganization of the State Department and USAID, tried to make the case that the State Department budget was bloated and had grown at an unsustainable rate since 2007.

He maintained the proposal would not cede U.S. leadership and that it "aligns with the administration's objective of making America's security our top priority." He said the State Department and USAID "have not evolved in their responsiveness as quickly as new challenges and threats to our national security have changed and are changing."

Lawmakers, however, were not buying his argument.

Ranking member Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., told Tillerson that the budget was unacceptable.

"I think we'll write our own budget," he said, calling the proposal "an approach to American foreign policy that is nothing less than a devastating assault on America's interest and values."

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said the budget "effectively withdraws American leadership around the world, pushing the door open for Russia and China to increase their scope of influence."

The budget would eliminate funding for the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, as part of a $780 million cut to international organizations. It would eliminate $1.6 billion in funding for addressing climate change and slash assistance for refugees and global health. It includes a $222 million cut in an international fund for fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria and would ends $523 million in funds for international family planning programs.

It also deeply cuts money for democracy, human rights and rule of law programs, U.N. peacekeeping and foreign assistance to most nations. The budget proposal is opposed by a broad coalition of development organizations along with current and former diplomats and military officers.

"This is really just the wrong message," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, before which Tillerson testified in the afternoon. "I am at a loss."