A House panel on Wednesday approved legislation that would make deep cuts in State Department money and foreign assistance, a reflection of lawmakers' debt-driven demands for austerity but a blow to assistance programs for famine-stricken parts of Africa.
The Republican-crafted bill would provide $47.2 billion for the next budget, $8.6 billion less than the current amount. Included in the overall amount is close to $8 billion for the Global War on Terror Fund, which covers the cost of security and counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations approved the bill by voice vote.
Democrats opposed to the measure decided to wait until the next step in the legislative process _ action in the full Appropriations Committee later this year _ to try to change the bill.
As Congress and the administration struggle to resolve the fight over spending, the panel approved $11.9 billion for the State Department and operations such as diplomatic and consular offices, embassy security and contributions to international organizations and international broadcasting. The amount is a cut of $3.9 billion from current levels and $3.1 billion below President Barack Obama's request.
"We are facing a global recession unlike anything in recent memory," said Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, chairwoman of the subcommittee. "Our debt is well over $14 trillion. Today, every dollar counts. This bill reflects these new realities."
Among the many reductions are cuts to programs that could aid the millions in Africa. The United Nations has said two regions of Somalia are suffering from famine and 11 million people are in need of aid. As of Aug. 1, the U.N. is preparing to declare all of southern Somalia a famine zone.
Among the cuts are an 11 percent reduction in the funds for the Migration and Refugee Assistance program to $190 million, and a 12 percent cut in the Disaster Assistance program to $105 million. The Emergency Migration and Refugee Assistance program would be reduced by 36 percent, to $18 million.
Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said it was a mistake "to cripple the agencies" trying to provide relief in Africa.
"This legislation would be a step back from U.S. leadership and substantially weaken the United States' efforts overseas by decreasing economic opportunity, stability and access to critical services for millions of the world's poorest people," Lowey said.
The bill would bar aid to Pakistan unless the U.S. secretary of state can certify to Congress that Islamabad is pursuing terrorists and helping investigate how al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden managed to hide for years inside Pakistan.
The measure presses the Obama administration for evidence of cooperation in the terror war by Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and the Palestinian Authority before providing U.S. dollars.
"We will insist on full transparency and accountability for every dollar we invest in Pakistan," Granger said.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., vowed to go a step further when the Appropriations Committee considers the bill, promising to offer an amendment to eliminate all aid for Pakistan. Jackson said it made no sense for the United States to provide $2.96 billion for Pakistan, nearly the same amount as the $3.07 billion in assistance to a far more reliable ally, Israel.
Reviving a divisive policy, the bill would ban federal money from going to international family planning groups that either offer abortions or provide abortion information, counseling or referrals.
The policy has bounced in and out of law for the past quarter century since Republican President Ronald Reagan first adopted it 1984. Democrat Bill Clinton ended the ban in 1993, but Republican George W. Bush re-instituted it in 2001 as one of his first acts in office. Within days of his inauguration, Obama reversed the policy.
In the Senate, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., introduced a bill far more in line with administration policy and lacking many of the restrictions on aid in the House legislation.
Kerry said the country faces "tremendous foreign policy and national security challenges worldwide, from helping countries manage peaceful, democratic transitions in the Middle East, to preventing violence, conflict, and terrorism from engulfing key partners, and to leading humanitarian responses to forestall drought, famine, and natural disasters."
He said a robust State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are critical to meeting those challenges.