Over White House objections, a House panel approved a bill Thursday that withholds hundreds of millions of dollars from the State Department until it produces more documents to lawmakers investigating the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
The $47.8 billion bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 also restricts funds to set up a diplomatic presence in Cuba -- a setback to the Obama administration's effort to thaw relations with the communist state after a half century. The Republican-led Appropriations Committee approved the bill by voice vote.
The bill withholds nearly $700 million -- or 15 percent of the department's operational funds -- until it develops and implements a plan to reduce a backlog of Freedom of Information Act and congressional requests. The chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and other Republicans have complained that the State Department has delayed providing emails and other documents involving former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and some of her top staffers.
Clinton, a Democratic candidate for president, used a personal server and email address while she was secretary of state. The department says it has provided more than 40,000 pages of documents, some 300 emails and has provided interviews with people with knowledge about the 2012 attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Under a judge's order, the department must release batches of Clinton's email correspondence every 30 days starting June 30, a process that would encompass 55,000 pages of emails sent from the personal email address that Clinton used while serving as secretary of state.
Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that handles State Department spending, tried unsuccessfully to remove the punitive provision from the bill, but her amendment failed.
"The proposed 15 percent cut to the State Department's operating funds if officials don't feed the sham investigation of Benghazi is simply atrocious," said Lowey, who accused Republicans of trying to "profit politically" from the tragedy in Benghazi.
The bill provides money for embassy security and assistance to countries, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Ukraine. It also funds democracy programs; international broadcasting; and Central America's efforts to address the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children that have come to the United States during the past year. It also states that the Palestinian Authority will not receive economic aid if it continues to pursue unilateral efforts at the United Nations and other international organization outside of a negotiated peace agreement with Israel.
In a letter to the committee this week, the Office of Management and Budget said the administration opposes the spending bill because it reduces overall funding by about $6.1 billion and is 11 percent below the president's request. The administration also disagrees with the bill's cuts to U.S. contributions to international organizations, economic and development assistance to U.S. allies and money to address climate change and surges in migration at the Southwest border.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, said the president's request had to be cut so as not to further burden future generations with government debt. "This bill makes responsible decisions to trim funding from lower-priority programs," Rogers said in support of the measure.