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WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday approved legislation that would allow the State Department to transfer $1.1 billion to improve security at U.S. embassies overseas in the aftermath of the deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya last September.
By voice vote, the Senate passed the bipartisan measure that would give the department the authority to use surplus funds that are no longer needed in Iraq, where the United States has scaled back operations. The bill now goes to the House.
"Hardening our embassy security is something that everyone agrees is needed," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign operations. "We all want to do what we can to prevent another tragedy like what occurred in Benghazi. The State Department has done a review, and these funds will be used to expedite construction of Marine security guard posts at overseas facilities, and to build secure embassies."
Last September, a terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, including two former Navy SEALs who were providing security.
In an escalating feud, Democrats blamed Republicans for deep cuts in diplomatic security spending for the raid in Libya. Republicans pointed to lapses in management and leadership as the reasons why the State Department failed to see the threat.
Initially the transfer authority was part of a sweeping $50 billion bill to provide aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy. But the House stripped the authority, eliminating any provision that was not related to hurricane relief. Leahy was furious with the delay.
An independent review panel that examined the Libya attack said serious lapses in management and leadership left the consulate badly unprepared, but it also called for a greater commitment from Congress to support the State Department's needs.
State asked for close to $2.4 billion in its 2013 budget for overseas security. The transfer of as much as $1 billion would speed up the construction of more Marine security guard units at overseas posts, additional diplomatic security agents and for security upgrades and construction at new embassies.
Since 2007, Congress has increased spending by 27 percent, or roughly a half-billion dollars, on security at foreign diplomatic posts, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Millions more were added over that period specifically for increased security in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But neither Congress nor the State Department added or sought additional spending specifically for security at U.S. posts in Libya despite growing instability in the country, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said in a report in December on the Benghazi attack.
Other sponsors of Leahy's bill are Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.