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Rex Tillerson in the hot seat as Senate budget hearing looms

With much of his senior staff still to be named, his department’s programs on the chopping block, and his influence with the boss in question, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could face some uncomfortable moments when he appears Tuesday for a Senate hearing on President Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint.

While Mr. Tillerson recently told reporters that the State Department’s current spending levels are just “not sustainable,” he’s likely to face sharp criticism from Democrats and some Republicans when he defends Mr. Trump’s call for a 28 percent reduction in U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid spending next year.

The president has called for a combined State Department and USAID budget of $ 25.6 billion. At the same time, he’s backed a roughly 10 percent increase in defense spending, proposing a $ 603 billion budget for the Pentagon in 2018.

The mood is expected to be more congenial at the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford also be testifying Tuesday morning, although even there some tough budget and strategy questions will be on the table.

The two, who already appeared Monday night in an unusually timed budget hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, will face questions about the administration’s reported plan to add as many as 5,000 U.S. troops to the 9,000 currently deployed to Afghanistan.

The White House has said Mr. Trump is still weighing his decision and Mr. Mattis offered few details Monday, during a hearing lawmakers said was held at night to accommodate the hectic week of budget action on the Hill. The onetime Marine general suggested in a prepared statement that Afghanistan remains a major priority, but was vague on the question of a troop increase.

“Not long ago we convinced ourselves that when we pulled out of Iraq and ceased combat operations in Afghanistan, we would take two or three years to ‘reset and reconstitute’ the force,” Mr. Mattis said. “Today’s operations dictate the best we can do is ‘reset and reconstitute in stride,’ a reality that imposes its own stress on the Force.”

Lawmakers are likely to grill the defense secretary on Mr. Trump’s call for such a dramatic increase in Pentagon spending overall at a time when the Republican heads of the Senate and House armed services panels are wary about waste currently plaguing the department. Mr. Tillerson’s influence on the president is also in question, after Mr. Trump ignored the secretary’s opposition to withdrawing from the Paris climate deal and Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson appeared to be taking very different lines on the current Middle East crisis concerning Qatar.

Mr. Tillerson is likely to have a tougher time defending the administration’s State Department and foreign aid cuts, after more than 120 former admirals and generals signed a letter in February urging Congress not to cut the budget for State and USAID while funding is needed for American soft-power reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is also unease among lawmakers over Mr. Trump’s slowness in filling top diplomatic positions since taking office in January.

The White House has not nominated any candidates for more than two dozen undersecretary and assistant secretary posts. There is, for instance, currently no permanent assistant secretary for diplomatic security, let alone permanent under secretaries for political affairs and public diplomacy.

While most of the positions are being run on an “acting” basis by veteran State Department officials, analysts and former diplomats say the dearth of administration-appointed people for the jobs could make it far more challenging for Mr. Tillerson to do his job and push through serious policy shifts outlined by the president.

Mr. Tillerson has so far appeared unconcerned about such factors. He’s also shown his support for Mr. Trump’s desire to trim State’s budget. The secretary of state told reporters during a visit to Tokyo in March that the current budget had grown “historically high” to coincide with U.S. engagement in overseas conflicts during recent decades.

“Clearly the level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking is simply not sustainable,” he said. “As time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the U.S. will be directly engaged in.”

Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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