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WATCH: Lawmakers blast Trump plan to slash State Department budget

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top lawmakers are blasting the Trump administration’s proposal to slash funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified Wednesday on Capitol Hill about the plan to cut his agency’s budget by 23 percent. He says difficult choices were made when crafting the 2020 proposal but argues the funding is enough to achieve the administration’s foreign policy goals.

Lawmakers don’t see it that way. Democratic Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York described the request as “insufficient” and said she intends to work with her colleagues to reject it.

“If the President’s budget were enacted it would undermine U.S. leadership and stymie worldwide efforts to counter violent extremism, terrorism and disinformation,” Lowey said.

A Republican on the panel, Hal Rogers of Kentucky, said the plan seemed “detached from reality” and warned “if we were to accept cuts of the magnitude proposed it would make our nation less safe, make it harder to achieve the effectiveness we all seek.”

The Trump administration has called for steep cuts to diplomacy three years in a row. Each time, lawmakers have ignored the requests.

“Let me be clear: this budget request was dead the moment it arrived on Capitol Hill,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said Wednesday.

“I don’t know whether this administration really believes we can mount an effective foreign policy — one that advances American interests, values, and security — on a shoestring budget, or if the people calling the shots just don’t care. But Congress won’t stand by and see American leadership on the global stage undermined. And that’s not just our opinion. That’s the power of the purse,” he said.

The top Republican on House Foreign Affairs, Michael McCaul of Texas, said while the budget includes some much needed reforms, “certain cuts can have unintended consequences that cost us more in the long term.”

Pompeo told lawmakers the scaled-back budget was drafted “mindful of the burden on American taxpayers,” and his agency’s “obligation to deliver exceptional results on their behalf.”

About a dozen protesters occupied the seats behind Pompeo in the House Foreign Affairs committee room Wednesday. Wearing brightly-colored “free Iran” T-shirts and carrying anti-war signs. Most sat quietly throughout the hearing, but one man interrupted testimony with shouts against sanctions, yelling “hands off Venezuela, hands off Iran, hands off China” in protest of U.S. sanctions before he was escorted out by security.

The Trump administration has used economic sanctions as a key foreign policy tool to constrain Iranian influence and respond to the escalating crisis in Venezuela. Trump has also imposed a series of tariffs on China in response to trade imbalances.

Despite asking for sweeping cuts in foreign aid overall, the administration’s budget proposal would allocate $3.3 billion in foreign aid to Israel. The Trump administration has made strong relations with Israel a central foreign policy focus and has promised a landmark plan to achieve peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Pompeo refused to say precisely when the plan would be unveiled, but assured lawmakers it will be made up of “new and fresh and different” ideas. When asked if the plan supports a state for Palestinians as well as the state of Israel, Pompeo said, “ultimately it will be the peoples of those two lands that resolve this and make that decision about how it is they’ll come together, what the contours of that resolution will look like.”

The State department budget request also seeks $5.4 billion to improve security for U.S. diplomats, an issue that has received more attention since the deadly 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Pompeo pledged to restore morale when he took up the Secretary of State post last year. The department had lost many of its most experienced diplomats during a restructuring process under his predecessor, Rex Tillerson. When asked by lawmakers why many key ambassadorships remain empty — including in Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — Pompeo blamed delays in the Senate.

“I made a commitment to get the team on the field,” Pompeo said Wednesday, “I want to get these folks out there so we can deliver American diplomacy in every corner of the world.”

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