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Senate Panel Rejects Trump Plan for Cutting Foreign Assistance

Lawmakers also push back on Tillerson’s plans to reshape State Department.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

In a stark repudiation of the Trump administration, lawmakers on Thursday passed a spending bill that overturned the president’s steep proposed cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy. Folded into the bill are management amendments that straitjacket some of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to redesign the State Department.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $51 billion for the State Department, foreign operations, and related programs in its 2018 appropriations bill — almost $11 billion above President Trump’s request.

The move signals a growing congressional backlash against the Trump administration’s aims to slash funding for diplomacy, foreign aid, and the United Nations.

Among other things, the bill provides over $6 billion for humanitarian assistance — almost $1 billion above the administration’s request. The panel is also restoring $10 million in U.S. funding for the U.N. climate change agency, overruling Trump’s call to end spending on it. In a surprising move, the committee also passed an amendment overturning Trump’s policies limiting funding and access to women’s reproductive healthcare and family planning abroad.

Democratic lawmakers also took aim at parts of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s redesign plan. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) proposed an amendment keep the assistant secretary of state for bureau of population, refugees, and migration, a position at risk of being scrubbed or folded into the Department of Homeland Security, as CNN reported in June.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) penned an amendment preventing Tillerson from expanding the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning. The division, meant to serve as an in-house think tank for the secretary, has dramatically expanded in scope and power under Tillerson, as Foreign Policy has reported.

“There are a lot of concerns in Congress about the consolidation of power and decision-making on the seventh floor,” a Democratic Congressional staffer told FP, referring to the top floor of the State Department where the secretary’s office is located. “That’s what spurred this.”

While Democratic lawmakers proposed the amendments, Republicans and Democrats alike on the committee passed both amendments unanimously as part of a management package, obtained by FP, folded into the bill. “It sends a very strong bipartisan signal to [Tillerson],” the staffer said.

“The State Department continues to support the President’s FY 2018 budget request,” a State Department spokesperson told FP in response. “We look forward to working with Congress to ensure support for State Department and USAID programs in FY 2018.”

Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed up to a 30 percent budget cut for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development. The administration also mulled folding USAID into the State Department as one proposal under its ongoing effort to redesign the State’s unwieldy bureaucracy — a plan Tillerson has repeatedly insisted is an “employee-led effort.” The plans were lauded by critics of U.S. foreign aid programs, but it sparked sharp backlash from others, including lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

But Trump’s drastic foreign assistance cuts provoked pushback even from some Republicans.  “Now is not the time for retreat; now is the time to double down on diplomacy and development,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chair of the appropriations subcommittee on State and foreign aid said Wednesday.

“The President sent us a budget that was irresponsible and indefensible,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), ranking member of the subcommittee, on Thursday. “Underfunding many critical programs – from U.N. peacekeeping to climate change to humanitarian relief for victims of war and natural disasters – is unacceptable for the world’s wealthiest, most powerful nation.”

FP’s Dan De Luce and Ruby Mellon contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer