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Can Kerry save the State Department on the “supercommittee”?

Can Kerry save the State Department on the “supercommittee”?

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) will be on the "supercommittee" that’s charged with slashing government spending, but will he use that power to rescue the State Department from its looming budget nightmare?

Kerry, along with Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Veterans Committee chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA), are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s three picks to represent the Senate Democrats on the 12-member supercommittee, which must find $1.5 trillion in new spending cuts by Thanksgiving. If the supercommittee — which was created by the debt ceiling compromise legislation — fails to reach an agreement, an automatic trigger will go into effect and cut $600 billion from entitlements and $600 billion from defense.

Kerry, who always denies he is jockeying to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she steps down (probably after the 2012 election), certainly looks like the leading candidate for the post. He has traveled frequently to hotspots like Afghanistan and Pakistan on behalf of the administration, led the push for Senate ratification of New START nuclear arms reductions, and is beginning a new push to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. He even toed the administration’s line that the war in Libya does not amount to hostilities.

The State Department, meanwhile, is preparing for what could be its worst budget year in a very long time. After two years of budget increases during the Obama administration, the dire fiscal situation has placed diplomacy and development funding on the chopping block. In April, the Obama administration voluntarily cut $8 billion from the State Department budget as part of the deal to avoid a government shutdown.

The House allocated $39.6 billion for State and foreign operations in fiscal 2012, not including war funding of another $7.6 billion. The administration had requested about $53 billion for fiscal 2012, and the fiscal 2011 level is about $47 billion. But with the GOP knives drawn, if Senate Democrats don’t fight hard for State Department money, Foggy Bottom will have to start taking drastic measures beginning in October to cut programs and staff.

Kerry has taken the lead in the Senate to defend the State Department budget. His authorization bill, released last month, largely supports the administration’s budget request. It stands at odds with  the authorization bill put forth by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and the appropriations bill put forth by Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), which would both slash State and USAID programs.

State is depending on the Senate to get them through this mess. Other key senators that State is looking for help from are Appropriations Committee leaders Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and State and Foreign Ops subcommittee heads Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

In the House, House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) has been working with House leadership to ensure that defense spending doesn’t fall victim to the supercommittee’s cuts. The Hill reported that McKeon is a "major contender" to be on the supercommittee. Even if he’s not chosen, our sources report that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has committed to choosing at least one member who will hold the line on defense.

Because the debt deal defines "security " spending as Defense, State, Intel, DHS, and Veterans funding, defense and diplomacy funding are in direct competition with each other this cycle. Ironically, by embracing the Obama administration’s wider definition of "security" spending, the GOP has forced a showdown between State and the Pentagon over budgets.

 Clinton and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates served for years as influential advocates of the argument that the national security toolkit needs to be rebalanced in favor of more funding for diplomacy.

"I never miss an opportunity to call for more funding for and emphasis on diplomacy and development," Gate said last year, adding, "I am keenly aware that the Defense Department — by its sheer size — is not only the 800 pound gorilla of our government, but one with a sometimes very active pituitary gland."

But Gates is gone and there is a new budget reality in Washington. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the trigger in the debt deal a "doomsday mechanism," meaning that the Pentagon can’t afford to take $600 billion in additional cuts.

But those cuts have to come from somewhere, and if they don’t come from defense, then State and foreign aid funding could be in real trouble. 

Whether Kerry is able to stand up for diplomacy and aid funding, in opposition to his GOP counterparts, will determine the functionality of the State Department he one day hopes to lead.