A long-running feud over whether Congress provides enough money for protecting U.S. diplomats escalated Tuesday as the chairman of a Senate subcommittee charged that House Republicans "blithely torpedoed embassy security funds" in stripping a $1 billion measure sought by the State Department from a hurricane relief bill.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., made the accusation on the eve of departing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's overdue appearance before the Senate and House Foreign Relations committees to testify about the Obama administration's handling of the September terrorist assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack.
Since then, the fingerpointing has been rampant. Democrats have blamed Republicans for cutting diplomatic security spending too deeply. The GOP has argued that lapses in management and leadership, not a shortage of money, were the reasons State Department officials failed to see the threat.
Leahy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department's budget, said the House deleted from the Senate's version of the Superstorm Sandy emergency relief bill an amendment he wrote at the department's request to shift up to $1 billion originally intended for U.S. operations in Iraq to be used for improving U.S. security at diplomatic outposts.
Senate leaders have planned a vote this week on the House's version of the $50 billion relief bill aimed primarily at helping residents and businesses as well as state and local governments rebuild from the late October storm that devastated coastal areas in the Northeast, particularly New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, said any provisions not directly related to storm relief were removed from the bill to ensure its quick passage last week in the House — two weeks after Speaker John Boehner incurred the wrath of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other Northeast Republicans for not holding the vote on New Year's Day. Most House Republicans ended up voting against it anyway. The Senate passed its storm aid bill in late December.
Hing said the committee is not opposed to Leahy's amendment "and agrees that the safety and security of our diplomatic personnel and operations is of the utmost importance." The measure can and should be included in the next suitable piece of legislation, she said.
Leahy, however, said any delay in approving the transfer authority, even a short one, slows the State Department's ability to follow through on recommendations for improving diplomatic security made by an independent panel that reviewed the Benghazi attack.
"I know from personal experience that there are many thoughtful Republicans in positions of responsibility in the House who want to do the right thing," Leahy said. "Yet a small but apparently dominant obstructionist cadre within the Republican ranks seemingly is willing to push the bounds of irresponsibility to ever greater heights."
The independent review panel said serious lapses in management and leadership left the consulate badly unprepared, but it also called for a greater commitment from Congress to support the State Department's needs. State asked for close to $2.4 billion in its 2013 budget for overseas security. The transfer of as much as $1 billion would speed up the construction of more Marine security guard units at overseas posts, additional diplomatic security agents and for security upgrades and construction at new embassies.
Since 2007, Congress has increased spending by 27 percent, or roughly a half-billion dollars, on security at foreign diplomatic posts, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Millions more were added over that period specifically for increased security in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But neither Congress nor the State Department added or sought additional spending specifically for security at U.S. posts in Libya despite growing instability in the country, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said in a report in December on the Benghazi attack.
State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security: http://www.state.gov/m/ds/index.htm