WASHINGTON (AP) — Over White House objections, a House panel approved a bill Thursday that withholds hundreds of millions of dollars from the State Department until it produces more documents to lawmakers investigating the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
The $47.8 billion bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 also restricts funds to set up a diplomatic presence in Cuba — a setback to the Obama administration's effort to thaw relations with the communist state after a half century. The Republican-led Appropriations Committee approved the bill by voice vote.
The provisions are just the latest salvo as newly-empowered Republicans try to use their power over the federal purse to challenge President Barack Obama on the environment, health care, regulation of the Internet, and abortion — just for starters. As the same time a battle is ongoing between the White House, its Democratic allies and Republicans controlling Congress that's about to come to a head next week with a Senate filibuster of a half trillion-plus Pentagon funding bill approved by a Senate panel on Thursday.
Democrats are trying to jump-start a budget summit aimed at swapping longer-term budget cuts and new revenues to provide relief for domestic agencies hit by returning budget cuts known as sequestration. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he'd welcome a call to start a budget summit — rather than reams of veto threats and position papers — but he's yet to hear directly from Obama about one.
Responding to Boehner, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House would engage in the spending process in a supporting role, but said it was up to lawmakers to negotiate.
"Ultimately, this is something that the Congress must resolve," he said.
The House foreign aid bill withholds nearly $700 million — or 15 percent of the department's operational funds — until it develops and implements a plan to reduce a backlog of Freedom of Information Act and congressional requests. The chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and other Republicans have complained that the State Department has delayed providing emails and other documents involving former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and some of her top staffers.
Clinton, a Democratic candidate for president, used a personal server and email address while she was secretary of state. The department says it has provided more than 40,000 pages of documents, some 300 emails and has provided interviews with people with knowledge about the 2012 attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Under a judge's order, the department must release batches of Clinton's email correspondence every 30 days starting June 30, a process that would encompass 55,000 pages of emails sent from the personal email address that Clinton used while serving as secretary of state.
Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that handles State Department spending, tried unsuccessfully to remove the punitive provision from the bill, but her amendment failed.
"The proposed 15 percent cut to the State Department's operating funds if officials don't feed the sham investigation of Benghazi is simply atrocious," Lowey said.
Jamal Ware, a spokesman for the Republicans on the Benghazi panel, asked: "What is it exactly they are afraid the people will find? All this provision does is withhold some non-security related funds until State Department implements a plan to assure policy decisions are transparent to the public."
Earnest said the move to withhold funding called into question the sincerity of Republicans who have called for additional security at U.S. outposts in the wake of the Benghazi attacks. He said it was hard to believe that cutting such a substantial chunk of State Department funding wouldn't undermine security at embassies.
State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said a 15 percent cut "would be counterproductive and would only further constrain the resources that we need (to meet) these growing increases in requests over recent years," citing the FOIA and congressional requests.
The bill provides money for embassy security and assistance to countries, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Ukraine. It also funds democracy programs; international broadcasting; and Central America's efforts to address the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have come to the United States during the past year. It also states that the Palestinian Authority will not receive economic aid if it continues to pursue unilateral efforts at the United Nations and other international organization outside of a negotiated peace agreement with Israel.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor, Josh Lederman and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.