Tiller­son on hot seat as bud­get hear­ing looms in Se­nate.

Con­gres­sional mem­bers to ask ques­tions over fund­ing, staffing, in­flu­ence

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY GUY TAY­LOR

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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

“Clearly the level of spend­ing that the State De­part­ment has been un­der­tak­ing ... is sim­ply not sus­tain­able,” said Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son (right). He is to ap­pear at a Se­nate hear­ing Tues­day.

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