Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to brief lawmakers about diplomatic security challenges and the Middle East today, but it's obvious those needs conflict with the budget austerity that Congress has embraced.
Even as Senators raise concerns about embassy security funding and personnel after the recent rash of assaults against U.S. outposts, Congress has proposed spending reductions for Worldwide Security Protection, an umbrella account within the State Department budget that funds efforts to keep diplomats safe.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of State and Foreign Operations, said Wednesday that security should be beefed up, but he did not signal a push for more money.
"If I were president of the United States, I would send a unequivocal statement to the people in the region: If you attack our interests, there will be consequences," Graham said. "I would reinforce our embassies and our consulates, and I would get deeply involved with each nation to try to find a way to maintain a foothold on progress."
In the stand-alone State Department spending bills for the most recent and the current fiscal years, the Senate did try to fund the diplomatic security accounts at higher levels than the House - a result of the difference between each chambers' adopted spending levels.
Specifically, Senators proposed providing a total of $245 million more than the $2.96 billion offered by their House counterparts.
In a sign of the budget environment, however, even the Senate total - about $3.21 billion for the two years - fell short of the $3.44 billion the White House requested.
In the short term, none of those cuts are imminent because the government will be operating on a continuing resolution for the next six months, maintaining current levels. Separately, the Office of Management and Budget estimated that automatic budget cuts required by sequestration would trim the budget for embassy security and infrastructure by $129 million in 2013. Those automatic cuts are scheduled to take effect at the end of the year.
A House Republican aide stressed that House appropriators in both parties and both chambers are committed to providing the resources the State Department says it needs to protect American diplomats. However, the aide points out that security on the ground also must be negotiated with the host country.
Rep. Nita Lowey, the ranking member on the corresponding House Appropriations subcommittee, has been concerned about the reductions in State Department security funding.
"Security is paramount not only to the men and women serving our nation abroad, but also for the thousands of American citizens traveling or working overseas," the New York Democrat said in a statement to Roll Call. "Short-changing security at U.S. embassies and missions would be short-sighted and penny-wise but pound-foolish."
Since the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, there has been a massive effort to build new embassies and refurbish existing properties that provide additional protection against attacks.
That may be little consolation as a political matter. The consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was by no accounts secure. An assault on that facility last week led to the death of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Republican Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.) have introduced a bill to mandate investigations of not only the deadly attack in Libya but also events that compromised security at U.S. facilities in Egypt and Yemen. The Foreign Relations panel decided not to take up that measure at a meeting Wednesday afternoon.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to express his view on the events until after an all-Senators meeting scheduled for today with Clinton.
"Secretary Clinton is going to come here tomorrow, and we're going to have an in-depth conversation with her. I've had conversations, but I think at this stage, we should wait until she comes and ... talks to the whole Senate, and she'll do that tomorrow," Reid said Wednesday.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had scheduled a separate meeting on the matter this morning, which has been scratched from the schedule.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that Clinton would also speak with Members of the House about the still-developing situation. Clinton should arrive expecting further questions about the Libya attack, particularly in light of statements that lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have made in recent days.
"To have the White House and our ambassador to the U.N. say that this was a spontaneous attack is obviously an insult to the intelligence of every American, especially those who have heard shots fired in anger," McCain said Wednesday. "You don't bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to spontaneous demonstrations.
"I know from being in Libya and being there in Benghazi and being in Tripoli that there are armed militias that they still haven't gotten under control," McCain said.
He traveled to Libya during the most recent Congressional recess and stayed with Stevens just weeks before his death. Asked Wednesday about the security situation he saw, he acknowledged it was dangerous.
"I was concerned, obviously. But not so concerned that I wouldn't go," McCain said.