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Tillerson Willing to Accept 'Dramatic' Budget Cuts

U.S. President Donald Trump's overview of the budget priorities for Fiscal Year 2018 are displayed at the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) on its release by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in Washington, March 16, 2017.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he is willing to accept the "fairly dramatic" cuts President Donald Trump is proposing to make to his department's budget, saying "the level of spending" it has been undertaking "particularly in this past year, is simply not sustainable."

The White House's "America First" budget proposal for the federal government proposes to significantly boost defense spending and offset the increase with steep cuts in funding for the State Department, other foreign aid programs, the agency responsible for enforcing environmental regulations, and other domestic programs.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney acknowledged some of the reductions, including at the State Department, are "fairly dramatic." The State Department would see more than one-quarter of its funds stripped away, but Mulvaney said "we believe that we have protected the core diplomatic function of the State." The cuts would shrink the role of government and improve efficiencies, Mulvaney added.

Tillerson reportedly protested even deeper cuts to his department's budget. But Tillerson has since expressed a willingness to accept the reductions that were eventually proposed, noting the "historically high level of budgetary resources" in the agency's current budget.

"The State Department is coming off an historically high level of budgetary resources in the 2017 budget, and this is reflective of a number of decisions that have been taken over the past few years, in part driven by the level of conflicts that the U.S. has been engaged in around the world as well as disaster assistance that's been needed," he said.

The $3 billion of annual foreign aid to Israel will remain intact, according to administration sources.

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'Tough choices'

The possibility of a smaller State Department budget, meanwhile, has raised concerns at the United Nations. In a statement Thursday, the U.N. said it is "totally committed" to efficiency and cost-effectiveness, but cautioned "abrupt funding cuts can force the adoption of ad hoc measures that will undermine the impact of longer-term reform efforts."

Wednesday, in a letter to Congress, the president said the proposed budget is aimed at making "safety of our people its number one priority — because without safety, there can be no prosperity."

The budget proposes a $54 billion increase in defense spending and cuts in non-defense programs, including congressional favorites such as medical research and help for homeless veterans.

"We have tough choices that have been put off for too long," Trump wrote in the letter.

"There's no question that this is a hard-power budget, it is not a soft-power budget," proclaimed Mulvaney. "That's what our allies can expect, that's what our adversaries can expect. That's what the president wanted us to relay and I think we've done an effective job of that."

The first Trump budget, which covers the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, features more money for defense, enforcing security at the border, and general law enforcement, as well as private and public school choice, according to Mulvaney.

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speaks about of U.S. President Donald Trump's budget in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, March 16, 2017.
White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speaks about of U.S. President Donald Trump's budget in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, March 16, 2017.

Possible battle ahead

But legislative approval will require 60 votes in the Senate. The president's party has a slim majority of 52 seats there, but there is no guarantee all Republicans will support the budget, and nearly all Democrats are likely to oppose it.

The senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Patrick Leahy, told VOA the president's budget proposals may appear reasonable to many Republicans in principle, but he predicts many of them will view the cuts differently after studying the details.

"I think you are going to hear a lot of people, Republicans and Democrats, going 'Whoops! Does he really mean that?'"

Leahy cautioned against bolstering the military at diplomacy's expense, saying "if we don't have a diplomatic outreach, what's going to happen? That [void] will be filled by the Russians and the Chinese. We don't want that."

The senior Democratic congressman on the House Budget Committee, John Yarmuth, also told VOA the proposals may not receive blanket Republican support.

"These are categories of expenditures that form the backbone of the economy — education, the environment, foreign aid and infrastructure," he said. "I think it's going to be very hard for Republican members to support some of these draconian cuts."

As for the Environmental Protection Agency, Mulvaney said despite the proposed budget cut of more than 31 percent, its "core function" will not be endangered.

The head of the union representing 9,000 employees of the EPA disagrees, saying the proposed cut is "devastating to the point where it's not going to be functional."

John O'Grady, the president of the executive board of Council 238 of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the overall attack by the administration on a supposedly bloated government work force is nonsense.

"Federal civilian employment is about the same number today as it was in 1962 under President John F. Kennedy," O'Grady said, explaining it is the number of contracted workers, not staffers, which has swelled.

Graphic of Trump budget cuts and gains
Graphic of Trump budget cuts and gains

Blueprint only

Thursday's proposal only looks at discretionary spending. It does not address taxes and contains no revenue projections. It also excludes major programs such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. It is designed as a blueprint for department and agency heads.

While much of the budget spotlight will be on the military getting a $54 billion boost, to a total just exceeding $600 billion, the Department of Homeland Security is to see a proposed six percent increase. But one high-profile DHS component, the Coast Guard, is expected to have its budget streamlined.

Mulvaney denied any entity is being targeted to provide equivalent funding for Trump's frequently touted "wall" along the Mexican border. The 2017 supplemental budget will include $1.5 billion for the border structure and $2.6 billion in the 2018 budget. The combined $4.1 billion is significantly higher than earlier estimates of initial funding for the structure, but much lower than its estimated total cost of $22 billion.

Cuts also are being made to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to eliminate what White House officials call wasteful, duplicative programs.

Government money also is to be eliminated for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes federal funds to 1,500 local non-commercial radio and television stations.

The White House intends to have a final budget finished by the first part of May.

VOA's Mike Bowman contributed to this report.