WASHINGTON -- President Clinton threatened yesterday to veto a House Republican measure that would cut overseas aid and overhaul the foreign policy bureaucracy, calling it an attack on presidential authority that would undercut American security.
"They are the most isolationist proposals to come before the United States Congress in the last 50 years," Mr. Clinton said in a statement delivered in the White House Rose Garden.
In his statement, the president adopted the same confrontational stance with Congress on foreign policy that he has been using about proposed cuts in domestic spending. He also raised the stakes by making the fight a test of which branch of government controls foreign policy.
Defying the president, the Republican-controlled House voted last night to make even deeper cuts in foreign aid than its leadership had proposed.
In floor debate before Mr. Clinton's veto threat, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, the New York Republican who chairs the International Relations Committee, hailed the legislation as "the first major challenge to the foreign policy status quo since the Cold War began more than 50 years ago."
Mr. Gilman, defending the cuts in the House bill, said: "Continuing deficits in the range of $200 billion a year will only weaken us economically. An America that is weak is not an America that can lead."
While congressional Republicans generally support cuts in foreign aid and moves to overhaul the bureaucracy, they differ in degree.
Mr. Gilman, a moderate, has tried to resist massive cuts. Others, like Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, view most foreign aid as a waste of money.
"The taxpayers of America have had enough," Mr. Helms said yesterday.
Many Republicans continue to support high levels of aid to Israel, the top recipient.
The bills moving through the Republican-controlled House and Senate would cut foreign aid, fold several agencies into the State Department and mandate several policy actions.
These include a cutoff of aid to Russia if Moscow goes ahead with its nuclear deal with Iran; the appointment of a special envoy to Tibet -- a move that would infuriate China, which views the mountainous region as its territory; and various provisions affecting relations with Poland, Hungary and Turkey.
Administration officials have been campaigning for weeks against various aspects of the GOP legislation, complaining of a new isolationist tide in Congress that would weaken U.S. leadership abroad.
But their words failed to slow the Republican momentum, forcing Mr. Clinton to weigh in yesterday as a major foreign affairs bill reached the House floor.
"Taken together, these constraints represent nothing less than
a frontal assault on the authority of the president to conduct the foreign policy of the United States," Mr. Clinton said. "We did not win the Cold War to walk away and blow the opportunities of the peace on shortsighted, scattershotted budget cuts and attempts to micro-manage the United States' foreign policy."
The House bill, Mr. Clinton said, would hamper efforts to carry out a nuclear deal with North Korea and possibly "derail our support for democratic reform in Russia."
He said that if the House bill "passes in its present form, I will veto it." This gave him maneuvering room to avoid carrying out the threat, because the legislation could well be altered before it reaches his desk.
The House bill cuts foreign affairs spending from $18.2 billion to $16 billion. Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich of Ohio had originally proposed much deeper cuts. But Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, intervened with House Speaker Newt Gingrich to restore some of the money.
But additional cuts loom as Republicans try to balance the federal budget by 2002. And they're only the latest in a series of reductions in foreign aid spending in recent years. Both Japan and the European Union spend more than the United States on foreign aid. The United States also ranks well below many other countries in the proportion in foreign aid spending relative to the size of its economy.
While foreign aid is unpopular with many Americans, Mr. Clinton said most recent surveys show that Americans have an exaggerated idea of how much is spent on it. In fact, the cost of aid, plus maintaining embassies and other diplomatic posts abroad, represents just more than 1 percent of the federal budget.
"That's about one-fifteenth of what Americans think it is," the president said.
Mr. Clinton's claim is supported by a poll conducted in January by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. The nationwide poll of 801 Americans found strong support for maintaining foreign aid at current spending levels or higher.
"Much of the resistance to foreign aid spending seems to be based on an extreme overestimation of how much the U.S. spends on foreign aid," the report said.
Although Mr. Clinton might be able to persuade Congress to modify provisions of the House and Senate bills that Democrats and even some Republicans describe as micromanagement of foreign policy, the president appears unlikely to stop the merger of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the U.S. Information Agency and the Agency for International Development into the State Department.
This is in part because the agencies involved are seen by many as Cold War relics. In addition, Secretary of State Warren Christopher entertained the idea of a merger as a way of joining Vice President Al Gore's campaign to "reinvent government." Mr. Gore later overruled him.