Senators: Trump's State budget proposal 'dead on arrival'

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a joint media conference at Government House on June 5, 2017 in Sydney, Australia.

Story highlights

  • The Trump administration wants to cut the State Department's budget by about 32%
  • Republican and Democratic senators alike blasted the proposed cuts

Washington (CNN)"Dead in the water" and "a waste of time."

Republican and Democratic senators alike blasted the Trump administration's State Department budget request, dismissing it as a non-starter and linking the proposed budget cuts to what some called a US withdrawal from the world stage.
The Trump proposal would cut funding for the State Department by about 32% with broad cuts to programs focused on security, economic growth and humanitarian aid, as well as in contributions to international organizations like the UN. The State Department budget represents about 1% of total government spending.
    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pushed back against criticism from the Senate foreign relations committee on Tuesday, admitting that the budget had "necessitated difficult decisions," but adding later in the hearing that "funding does not equal results."

    "A statement of values"

    It was clear, though, that lawmakers aren't going to give the administration's proposal the time of day. Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the committee, said he sat down with his staff Monday to discuss the budget proposal.
    "After about five minutes I said, 'This is a total waste of time,'" Corker said. "The budget that's being presented is not going to be the budget we deal with. It's just not."
    Tillerson received a similar reception before the Senate appropriations committee, where he testified later in the afternoon and heard bipartisan concerns about an erosion of US global influence and standing.
    "I want the country to know I think this budget request is, in many ways, radical and reckless," the committee's Republican chairman, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, said.
    Graham opened the hearing by displaying a poster that detailed 12 foreign policy challenges the US faces, a list that included Russian aggression, North Korean nuclear ambitions, four potentially devastating famines and the war in Syria.
    "You da man," Graham quipped to Tillerson. "Gonna do all this and cut the budget by 29%."

    Penny wise

    Graham questioned the strategic thinking behind many of the cuts, arguing that they are "penny wise and pound foolish" because in the long term they will undercut US security, shortchange close allies and cede influence to rivals such as China and Russia.
    In support, he quoted Defense Secretary James Mattis, who as commander of Centcom, pleaded for increased State Department funding, because otherwise he would "have to buy more bullets."
    In one of many detailed examples, Graham pointed to a decision to cut disaster assistance by 27%.
    "The terrorists love this," he said. "From the terrorist point of view, this is a recruiting tool." He argued that money saved now may have to be spent later. "You want to deal with these people now, while they can be helped?" he asked. 'Or you want to kill them later."
    When Graham was done, the leading Democrat on the committee, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, shook his head, saying, "Well, I was going to be tough, but..."
    Earlier in the day at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez, described the funding proposal as "dead on arrival" before going on to question the elimination of funding for programs promoting democracy. "A budget is a statement of values," Menendez said, noting that "zeroing out" funding for human rights, democracy and good governance "doesn't speak to our core values."
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    Instead, he said, the budget represents a disaster for desperate people living under repressive regimes and "effectively withdraws American leadership around the world."
    The ranking Democrat on the committee, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, said that lawmakers will "write our own budget," but decried what he called the "chilling impact" on the department and a series of foreign policy decisions that he said amounted to a surrender of US global leadership.
    "We meet at a time of deep and mounting concern regarding the tone, substance, and trajectory of your administration's foreign policy," Cardin said, reminding Tillerson that this month marks the 70th anniversary of the US-led postwar effort to build a liberal international order.

    "Present at the destruction"

    "My concern today, quite frankly, is that your Administration will go down in the history books as being 'present at the destruction' of that order we have worked so hard to support and that has so benefited our security and prosperity and ideals," Cardin said.
    Tillerson pushed back against the committee, saying that never during his time as CEO of the oil giant ExxonMobil did people ever equate "giving me a pot of money and suggesting that confirms our success and our commitment."
    And he disagreed with the view, raised by many Democrats, that President Donald Trump's foreign policy decisions along with the State Department's failure to fill hundreds of vacancies are undermining US leadership and values.
    Senators raised Trump's failure to endorse the NATO principle of collective defense, his embrace of authoritarian leaders such as Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or China's President Xi Jinping, and his decision to walk away from the voluntary Paris Agreement on global warming.

    "A completely counter view"

    "I take a completely counter view to the way you've interpreted to the president's actions and what the administration has had underway," Tillerson told Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat. "I think we're really leaning in to US leadership" to make clear "we're going to continue in this leadership role, but you, our allies, must do your share."
    He cited NATO as an example. Trump has made the decades long problem of NATO spending a key issue, arguing other members owe the US money and must do more to meet the alliance's guideline that each member allocates 2% of their GDP to defense.
    "NATO has never seen a response like they're seeing now," Tillerson said. "We're not going to set the burden down, we're not going to walk away .. but the world has changed."
    CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correctly state that the State Department budget represents about 1% of total government spending.