- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Trump administration is proposing a 37 percent cut to diplomacy and foreign aid budgets to help pay for increased military spending, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The steep cuts raised immediate concerns among lawmakers and national security veterans about America’s ability to promote its values around the world and avert wars, rather than fight them. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. took to the Senate floor to describe foreign aid as a national security imperative.

“I promise you, it’s going to be a lot harder to recruit someone to anti-Americanism and anti-American terrorism if the United States of America was the reason why they are even alive today,” said Rubio, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member.

David Petraeus, who headed the CIA after commanding U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a group of more than 100 national security experts echoed that sentiment, calling diplomacy “critical to keeping America safe.”

Officials familiar with the proposal said the reductions would be felt across the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Foreign development assistance, which is largely overseen by USAID, would take the biggest hit, but funding for State Department operations and staffing would also be affected, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the spending plan publicly before it is presented to Congress.

The proposed cuts are contained in a budget outline sent to federal departments this week. The outline suggests ways to achieve savings, but the officials wouldn’t discuss those details as the budget process will involve negotiations with the Office of Management and Budget as well as with Congress, where lawmakers have expressed concerns about the steepness of the cuts. It wasn’t clear Tuesday whether the outline directs the State Department or USAID to eliminate specific programs or would grant them some discretion.

Officials said a 37 percent cut would eliminate programs and likely cause staff reductions, including security contractors at diplomatic missions, a matter that became only more sensitive after the deadly 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. They said some overseas facilities and offices might even have to be closed. The combined State Department/USAID budget this year was $50.1 billion, a little more than 1 percent of the total federal budget.

The State Department already has been bracing for budget cuts. Many of its bureaus went through exercises earlier this year to see how they could function with 20 percent or 25 percent less money, officials said. Buyouts could help reduce the size of the diplomatic corps along with early retirements and layoffs, they found. Eliminating special envoy and special representative positions could also yield savings. Only 11 of 32 special envoy or representative posts that existed during the Obama administration are currently filled.

USAID’s operations may be even more precarious. Numerous agency initiatives, including those dealing with global health, climate change and women’s issues, could face the axe if the proposal is adopted, the officials said. They said they expected a majority of USAID funding to be cut.

“The department is working with the White House and OMB to review its budget priorities,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, declining to address the proposal specifically. “The department remains committed to a U.S. foreign policy that advances the security and prosperity of the American people.”

On Monday, the White House said President Donald Trump was seeking deep cuts in non-military spending to pay for a $54 billion increase in the defense budget.

“The president said we’re going to spend less money overseas and spend more of it here,” said budget director Mick Mulvaney. “That’s going to be reflected in the number we send to the State Department.”

“We put out our priorities,” White House Sarah Huckabee Sanders added Tuesday, noting that the numbers could be revised.

Yet lawmakers from both parties were already pushing back - including congressional leaders with significant sway over the budget process.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he didn’t support cutting the international affairs budget and predicted Trump’s proposal would “probably not” pass the Senate.

“I for one, just speaking for myself, think the diplomatic portion of the federal budget is very important,” McConnell said. “You get results a lot cheaper, frequently, than you do on the defense side.”

Added Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Democratic vice chairman: “It is a hasty list of appallingly unbalanced, shortsighted, politically driven priorities.”

___

Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

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