Republicans push back against Trump plan to cut foreign aid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress on Tuesday assailed his proposed cuts in the diplomatic and foreign aid budget, making it unlikely the cutbacks in global health, peacekeeping and other programs will take effect.

FILE PHOTO - President Donald Trump's FY2018 budget is seen printed at the Government Publishing Office in Washington, U.S. on May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Senate subcommittee responsible for diplomacy and foreign aid spending, said Trump’s proposal to cut the diplomacy and aid budget by one third would “gut soft power.”

“If we implemented this budget, you’d have to retreat from the world or put a lot of people at risk,” Graham told reporters. “This budget is not going to go anywhere.”

Congress sets the federal government budget, and Republicans who control both houses and Democrats have said they do not support such drastic cuts.

The funding cuts in Trump’s plan for the fiscal year beginning in October would mark a stark decrease in non-military U.S. government engagement abroad as the administration pursues Trump’s “America First” world view.

Trump administration officials defend the cuts by saying the rest of the world must do its “fair share” as the United States retreats from its traditional spending abroad.

In all, the Trump proposal cuts about 32 percent from U.S. diplomacy and aid budgets, or nearly $19 billion.

Trump’s budget would cut U.S. funding for global health programs including efforts focusing on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria by about one quarter, to about $6.5 billion for 2018.

The budget proposal envisions cuts to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, a cornerstone of U.S. global health assistance, which supports HIV/AIDS treatment, testing and counseling for millions of people worldwide. Under Trump’s budget, PEPFAR funding would be $5 billion per year compared to about $6 billion annually now, the State Department said.

No patient currently receiving antiretroviral therapy, a treatment for HIV, through PEPFAR funds will lose that treatment, officials said.

The budget proposal also includes a steep cut to funding for international organizations, without specifying which groups might lose their funding. The NATO military alliance would continue to be fully funded.

U.S. funding for international peacekeeping would fall to about $1.5 billion, a cut of over 50 percent from 2017 levels.

The United States is the biggest contributor to the United Nations, paying 22 percent of the $5.4 billion core budget and 28.5 percent of the $7.9 billion peacekeeping budget

“Given the growing threats we face, we should be supporting – not slashing – anti-terrorism, law enforcement, and humanitarian programs,” Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

Trump’s budget would reduce funding for educational and cultural exchanges by 52 percent, including a 47 percent cut to the Fulbright Program, which enables U.S. citizens to go abroad and brings foreign students to study in the United States.

The Trump proposal assumes the State Department will maintain its current structure, though Tillerson has said he wants to restructure the agency and find efficiencies.

Nonetheless, the budget makes major shifts in some funding.

A core, $2.8 billion development account overseen by USAID that funds agricultural, water, sanitation and other projects would be consolidated with other funding streams to create the Economic Support and Development Fund. That new account would then be cut by about 45 percent compared to current funding levels.

Additional reporting by Amanda Becker in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Cynthia Osterman