Kerry to defend Obama’s foreign-affairs budget

Kerry to defend Obama’s foreign-affairs budget

After the Senate Budget Committee took a big swipe at next year’s foreign-affairs budget, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will get a chance this week to defend President Obama’s request.

The SFRC will mark up its fiscal 2011 State Department authorization bill in an open meeting Tuesday, the first time the committee has done that since 2005. The Bush administration in its second term didn’t care much about running its foreign affairs policies through Congress and the committee, under then-chairman Joe Biden, didn’t feel the need to spend political capital passing policy laws for an administration it largely opposed.

But this year is different, with new chairman John Kerry and the Obama administration largely in lockstep in calling for increases for the State Department and USAID. The man standing in their way at this moment is another Democrat, Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, whose committee passed a budget resolution last week that slashed $4 billion from the president’s $58.5 billion request.

That flew in the face of letters from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and the entire development community.

The budget resolution isn’t the final word, though. Our Hill sources say it’s questionable whether the budget resolution will even pass the full Senate, much less the House. If and when it gets to the floor, Kerry will be offering an amendment to increase foreign operations funding.

In fact, the budget resolution isn’t even binding; it’s just a guideline for the Appropriations Committee. The authorization bill is also a non-binding guideline for appropriators, who have the final word. House and Senate appropriators will begin work on their fiscal 2011 bills in May, but might not finish up for a long, long time — think months, not weeks.

Regardless, battle lines are being drawn, and Kerry’s committee will argue Tuesday that the president’s request for increased State Department funding is needed to revamp America’s diplomatic mission, rebalance the national-security toolkit, and help State take on an increased role in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

"We’re trying to use this as a renewed commitment to what the president requested," said one congressional aide.

"This legislation demonstrates our commitment to a strong, capable, and well-funded diplomatic corps that can stand side-by-side with our military to meet our national security priorities and foreign-policy challenges," Kerry said in a statement.

There are some small changes to the request in Kerry’s bill, our aide confirmed. For example, the bill changes the rules by which countries are classified for grants under the Millennium Challenge Corporation. If Kerry’s bill becomes law, countries will be able to have concurrent or successive grants and the bill would tweak the rules by which countries are classified as "low income," to give them more consistency.

A manager’s amendment to be offered to be offered by Kerry tomorrow will, among other things, codify into law the establishment of an Office of Global Women’s Issues at State. That office is already up and running, led by Amb. Melanne Verveer, but this would make it official.

Tomorrow’s session could see other amendments, and members might want to opine on whatever else is on their minds related to foreign affairs.

"It’s going to be quite a robust discussion," our aide predicts.

The markup is at 2:15 p.m. on Tuesday, April 27, in Room S-116 of the U.S. Capitol building.