AP Interview: Clinton tries to ward off Hill cuts

Congress is demanding that the State Department do it all with less money, from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to processing thousands of visas to boost U.S. businesses, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Clinton challenged deficit-cutting reductions in foreign aid. Clinton said she is waging a campaign to educate many in Congress about the work of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Determined to build her case against spending cuts, she also highlighted the department's significance in an economy hard hit by recession and unemployment.

Legislation in the House and Senate would slash billions of dollars from the budgets for the department and foreign operations, targeting relief efforts and international organizations. Lawmakers say that in a time of increasing deficits and fiscal austerity, all federal spending faces the budget knife.

But Clinton argued in the Tuesday interview that Congress also expects the department to continue handling numerous responsibilities.

"Well, they wanted us to keep doing what we were expected to do in Iraq, doing in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and, oh by the way, what you're trying to do in Yemen, what you're trying to do in Somalia, what you're trying to do in Sudan, etc., etc.," she said in a wide-ranging, hour-long interview. "But we don't want to give you as much money, so you just keeping doing that."

To that end, Clinton followed the Defense Department model and carved out a separate account for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, called the Overseas Contingency Operation. This is in addition to the base budget for the department.

Clinton said it "relieves some of the pressure" on the foreign aid budget.

While pressing lawmakers to spare foreign aid, Clinton said the administration also has reached out to Israel, which has an interest in maintaining security aid to the Palestinians, to help urge Congress to continue assistance.

"We're asking the Israelis on a case by case basis," she said.

Congress is still struggling with the final spending bill for 2012, but the version in the House would provide $39.6 billion for the State Department and foreign aid, $11.2 billion less than what President Barack Obama and Clinton requested for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Separately, it would provide $7.6 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operation.

The bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate would provide $53.5 billion. The overseas account would get $8.7 billion.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department's budget and foreign aid, said she understood Clinton's frustration, but all departments and government agencies are facing cuts.

"Everyone's taking cuts. ... It is the world we live in today. We're asking more for less money and less appropriations," Granger said in an interview Wednesday. The chairwoman said she purposely avoided across-the-board cuts to the department and instead focused on reducing spending for programs with unspent funds.

Clinton, who has traveled 600,000 miles to 90 countries in her 2 1/2 years as secretary of state, said she is facing a common misperception that foreign aid is 20 percent of the government budget. In fact, it is 1 percent of federal spending.

"It's a burden for us to keep making the case. ... But then I'll get called by a conservative member of Congress who asks, 'Why aren't we doing more in the Horn of Africa? Those people are starving.' And so we have to keep making the case, and we are," she said. "We have religious groups who are our allies on foreign aid. The military and intelligence community are much more aware of what we help them do."

Clinton is scheduled to speak to the New York Economic Club on Friday and she described the business demands on the department.

"The biggest concern I hear from (General Electric chief executive) Jeff Immelt to the business guy I run into on the street in New York is 'You gotta process more visas. You know I want to do business with a Chinese supplier and he's been waiting six months to get his interview to get a visa," she said. "We have increased the numbers. We are open six days a week. We have more people doing it. The demand is just enormous. And so if we're going to keep up on the economic side, there are certain functions we have to be able to perform."

Clinton's budget is up against spending for the Defense Department. In this summer's debt accord, Congress created a national security account that pits spending on defense against veterans, homeland security and foreign aid. Despite the odds against the State Department, Clinton said she and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates worked to establish the account.

"I'm fully aware of the much greater presence of the Defense Department on the Hill and also the very strong allegiance that many members have to every weapons system that ever was proposed," she said, acknowledging the political reality.

Just this week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will consider legislation to cut or trim spending for the United Nations. Clinton said it was short-sighted to target international organizations, especially as the United States tries to learn more about Iran and North Korea at the International Atomic Energy Agency.