The White House has scrapped plans to seek the return to the Treasury of up to $4 billion in unspent foreign aid amid intense pressure from Capitol Hill, according to a senior administration official and others familiar with the decision.
The Office of Management and Budget sent a letter to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development this month, notifying them of a temporary freeze on funds that Congress had already approved and the potential cancellation of billions of dollars in foreign aid.
Senior Republicans and Democrats said the move would undermine Congress’s authority to appropriate funds, but administration officials insisted that they were targeting only projects that are unnecessary or of questionable value.
The OMB letter, reviewed by The Washington Post, listed eight areas that cover a variety of assistance: international organizations; peacekeeping operations and activities; international narcotics control and law enforcement; development aid; assistance for Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia; economic support funding; foreign military financing programs; and global health programs.
According to people familiar with the process, the named funds could have amounted to between $2 billion and $4 billion.
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the White House was persuaded not to move forward after hearing from lawmakers from both parties.
While traveling in Ottawa on a diplomatic visit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who fought the cuts, declined to announce a final decision on the matter.
“With respect to rescission, the president is still contemplating,” he told reporters. “What I have consistently said, with respect to every penny the State Department spends, including our foreign assistance budget, we’ve got to get it right and make sure we’re using it in ways that are effective.”
If the OMB had gone ahead in seeking to rescind some $4 billion in foreign aid, it would have required the approval of Congress to not spend the money. But the situation could have become complicated because the money was technically frozen, and that would have set up a battle between the White House and Congress on how to allocate the funds before the fiscal year ends.
Advocates for foreign aid were exuberant that the proposed cuts were rejected for the second year in a row.
“This is the right ending to a charade that should have never happened,” said Tom Hart, North America head of the ONE Campaign. “Development funding is not a handout; it’s a valuable tool to advance America’s values and foreign policy, national security and economic interests.”
Liz Schrayer, president of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, singled out Pompeo for praise, saying he had fought successfully for maintaining foreign aid.
“After weeks of internal deliberations, smart policy has clearly won the day,” she said.
“With all the threats and competition that America faces overseas — from Ebola to a renewed ISIS to China — it’s clear once again from the Freedom Caucus to the Progressive Caucus that politicizing these kinds of cuts to critical national security programs is simply not a winning agenda,” she added.
John Wagner contributed to this report.