By Sylvan Lane and Rebecca Kheel - 02-28-17 19:36 PM EST
President Trump's proposed cuts to foreign aid are hitting a wall of resistance on Capitol Hill, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) declaring the plan "dead on arrival."
The blowback is centered on Trump's plan to reportedly ask for a 37 percent cut to the State Department's budget, a reduction lawmakers characterized as misguided and dangerous.
"It would be a disaster," said Graham, a frequent Trump critic and chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department. "A budget this lean would put those who serve overseas for the State Department at risk. And it's not going to happen."
Asked whether Trump's proposed cuts to the State Department would pass, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) replied, "Probably not."
The White House is preparing a budget blueprint to be released on March 16 with top-line numbers for government agency spending. Administration officials on Monday said the plan would include a $54 billion defense budget hike paid for with equivalent cuts to nondefense programs.
The Environmental Protection Agency, State Department and safety net programs are expected to take the biggest hits in the budget. Trump might propose a 24 percent cut to the EPA's budget, a move Republicans cheered, along with the 37 percent State Department cut.
Trump said Monday the federal government must learn to "tighten its belt" and do more with less. He called the defense hike a sign of "American strength, security and resolve" and has downplayed foreign aid's benefits.
The White House "expects the rest of the world to step up in some of the programs this country has been so generous in funding in the past," said a senior administration official Monday.
Lawmakers from both parties fear a sharp reduction in State Department funding could be deadly for American diplomats and foreign service officers. Several cited remarks from Defense Secretary James Mattis, a former U.S. Central Command chief, who warned lawmakers in 2013: "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition."
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the State Department budget, called for more foreign aid funding, not less.
"If we do development right, then there will be less need to buy bullets," Dent said.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), another House appropriator, supports Trump's Pentagon budget hike but called cutting from the State Department "counterproductive."
Cole said most State Department money goes to running and protecting U.S. embassies, and that foreign aid has helped support military operations in the Middle East through better relationships with regional allies.
"People seem to think foreign aid is charity. It's not," Cole said. "It's given largely in the interest of the United States."
Democratic lawmakers echoed their concerns about cutting State funding to boost defense spending.
Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said Trump's "shortsighted" vision "could cost Americans dearly."
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, called it "very foolish from a security standpoint to cut diplomacy and foreign aid."
"I can't imagine that Secretary Mattis was recommending that they reduce that, and that's one of the things we would need to get into," Kaine said. "Why would the White House not follow the advice of a guy who really knows what he's talking about?"
Trump's proposed hike to defense spending is also meeting opposition.
Several GOP defense hawks said Trump's defense boost isn't big enough, while other Republicans rejected in principle to cutting from nondefense spending to boost the Pentagon.
The entire State and EPA budgets combined are less than the $54 billion Trump wants for defense.
Republicans also said it would be impossible to balance the budget without reforming Social Security and Medicare, the most expensive parts of the budget fueled by trust funds projected to become insolvent in less than 20 years.
Trump promised during the campaign that he wouldn't cut entitlement payments for current beneficiaries, and that stance will be reflected in his budget, according to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. Still, Mulvaney didn't rule out proposing reforms or cuts for future beneficiarie
"Sooner or later, you've got to get to entitlement reform," Cole said. "You can't balance the budget and build up the Defense Department at the expense of the nondefense discretionary budget."
Dent said Trump's plan to pay for the defense boost "isn't realistic or viable."
"If the proposal is to take the defense spending out of nondefense, you'll end up with another [short-term bill] for fiscal 2018," Dent said. "We can make some changes there and make some reductions where necessary, but I don't think we'd be smart to try to increase defense spending on that backs of all these nondefense programs."
Jordan Fabian and Jordain Carney contributed.