Chairwoman Lowey speaks during House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with Pompeo
By Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress rejected President Donald Trump's proposed cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid budgets as dangerous to national security on Wednesday, setting the stage for a budget battle with the White House.
Representative Eliot Engel, Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Trump's proposal was "dead" as soon as it arrived in Congress, during the second of two House of Representatives hearings where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took questions from lawmakers for some seven hours.
"This budget ... signals to the world that the Trump foreign policy is one of disengagement," Engel said.
The senior Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees State Department spending, Hal Rogers, described the budget plan at an earlier hearing as "woefully inadequate" to cover the administration's foreign policy and security goals.
The proposal slashes the State Department and aid budget by about $11 billion to $40 billion, he said.
"Given what the world looks like right now, this approach seems detached from reality," Rogers said, citing the need for U.S. leadership in a world with millions of displaced people, more countries facing instability and rising tensions.
Democratic Representative Nita Lowey, who chairs the full Appropriations Committee, also rejected the "draconian" cuts. "I am astonished that three years into his administration, the president still does not appreciate the merits of sustained investments in diplomacy and development," she said.
In written remarks before the hearings, Pompeo said the budget sought to double funds for countering China's increased aggression, and strengthen systems to target Russia's growing threats to the United States and Western world.
"China is proactively applying its power and exerting its influence in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond," Pompeo said, adding: "This budget prioritizes countering Russian malign influence in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia, and further strengthens the Department's own systems against malign actors."
Pompeo said resources would also fund work to reach a deal with North Korea on curbing its nuclear program and push back against Iran's role in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
He said the budget also requested new authority to support a democratic transition in Venezuela, including transferring up to $500 million to foreign assistance accounts.
'EMBARRASSING AND DANGEROUS'
Trump's proposal calls for spending more U.S. taxpayer money on the military and a U.S.-Mexico border wall, while overhauling social safety-net programs in a budget plan likely to die in Congress but live on in his 2020 re-election campaign.
Democratic Representative Lois Frankel called Trump's budget proposal "embarrassing and dangerous."
Pompeo came under repeated questioning to explain the administration's policy toward Saudi Arabia, from lawmakers concerned about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, as well as the imprisonment and abuse of women's rights activists.
He insisted repeatedly that human rights were a top Trump administration priority, and said efforts were under way "across the government" to investigate what happened and hold accountable anyone responsible, even the highest Saudi officials.
Several Democrats sharply criticized an expanded anti-abortion policy Pompeo outlined on Tuesday, which cuts funding to groups that support abortion rights. "Your budget and action is devastating to the health of women around the world," Frankel said.
"Your administration is abortion obsessed," she said.
Republicans said they backed the policy and several praised Pompeo for his stance.
Pompeo was reluctant to detail the administration's plan and timeline for releasing an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan developed by White House advisers Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law.
He said the proposed plan sought to tackle areas of a Middle East conflict that previous U.S. administrations failed to resolve.
"Our vision will demonstrate our commitment that we want Palestinians to have a better life as well," Pompeo said, adding he hoped the Palestinians would view the United States as a "fair arbiter."
Pompeo was pressed by Democrat Barbara Lee about proposed cuts in funding to African countries. She said Trump sought cuts of 56 percent to Ghana, 33 percent to Ethiopia, 14 percent to Mozambique, 44 percent to South Sudan, and 71 percent to South Africa, mostly in global health funding.
"This is after a well-documented track record of controversial statements from the president identifying certain countries as 's-hole' countries, and quite frankly, attitudes toward the continent in general," said Lee.
Pompeo pushed back at the criticism, saying the gist of the question was "in my judgment fundamentally unsound."
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Susan Thomas and Peter Cooney)