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Politics & Government

Lawmakers Urge Tillerson Not To Cut Diplomacy In State Department Redesign


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is redesigning the State Department and defending massive budget cuts. But Democrats and Republicans say this is no time to cut back on diplomacy. Tillerson's deputy was on Capitol Hill today to try and ease some of those concerns. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Lawmakers don't argue with Tillerson's promise to improve the State Department's IT infrastructure or his efforts to streamline the bureaucracy. But the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Ed Royce, says budget cuts should not go too deep at a time when there are so many challenges around the globe.


ED ROYCE: Yes, there is room for savings. We need savings. But we should not, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our diplomacy and assistance improves our national security, improves our economic well-being for a relatively small amount of money.

KELEMEN: Diplomats, he says, are America's eyes and ears on the ground. They're needed to persuade countries to impose sanctions on North Korea, for instance, and to see threats coming in places like northern Nigeria. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan is trying to reassure Royce and his committee that he will consult with Congress before closing any diplomatic posts or making other dramatic changes.


JOHN SULLIVAN: We will be coming as they're ready with proposals to this committee. My hope and expectation is that all of the major reforms that we're going to propose will be done by the end of this calendar year.

KELEMEN: His boss has raised a lot of eyebrows, maintaining a hiring freeze long after it was lifted for the rest of the federal government. Secretary Tillerson has also hired outside consulting groups. And morale has been sinking as rumors started circulating that he might move key parts of the State Department to Homeland Security, including consular services. Sullivan denied that when questioned by Democrat Brad Sherman.


BRAD SHERMAN: Can you put those rumors to rest?


SHERMAN: You're - that's not under consideration?

SULLIVAN: That is not under consideration.

SHERMAN: That is a great answer.

KELEMEN: Also not in the works - merging the U.S. Agency for International Development with the State Department. Still, there are other lingering concerns. The Trump administration has been slow to fill top diplomatic jobs. And as Congressman Sherman points out, Trump has been touting a muscular foreign policy.


SHERMAN: And I would hope that you and the secretary would convince the president that a muscular foreign policy requires a fully staffed State Department.

KELEMEN: Throughout the House hearing, Sullivan made clear he's not happy with the slow vetting process for political appointees.


SULLIVAN: We're behind the curve. We should be ahead of the curve. And we're doing all we can to catch up.

KELEMEN: Over in the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee approved a few more nominees today, including former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman to become the next ambassador to Russia and Wess Mitchell to be assistant secretary of state for Europe. They now go to the Senate floor for a vote. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIM'S "AMSTERDAM BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.