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Senate panel seeks tighter oversight of State Department

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the Sept. 11, 2013 security failures during attacks against the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee begins work this week on reauthorizing the State Department, legislation that hasn't been signed into law since 2002 because of partisan differences over management of U.S. diplomacy.

The panel has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday with Heather Higginbottom, deputy secretary of state for management and resources, on "ensuring effective U.S. diplomacy within a responsible budget."

On Tuesday, a Foreign Relations subcommittee will hear from the department's inspector general, Steve Linick.

The hearings are in keeping with a pledge by committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., when he took over in January to conduct "a thorough review of all State Department programs and practices, with the goal of passing a responsible reauthorization of the department, something Congress has not done in 13 years."

But presidential politics loom over the process, as it's likely to bring more unwelcome attention to the tenure of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now a Democratic presidential candidate.

Clinton is already under scrutiny for her actions after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died; her use of a private email server while secretary of state — and the apparent deletion of those emails; and, most recently, allegations that foreign entities who made payments to both her and the Clinton Foundation received favors from the State Department in return.

Meanwhile, President Obama left the inspector general's position vacant during Clinton's entire four-year tenure, depriving the department of valuable oversight.

"It's about time that the Senate do its due diligence," said Yleem Poblete, who, as chief of staff to former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., saw previous efforts to enact authorization bills passed by the House flounder in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The reauthorization has fallen victim to a partisan divide, with Democrats seeking to protect State Department funding and Republicans wanting greater oversight and a more streamlined bureaucracy.

Numerous reports have detailed management issues in the department during the period in which Congress has failed to act. Within a year of taking his post, Linick had issued three "management alerts" detailing serious problems that had festered since Clinton left her post, including the fact that the department had lost track of about $6 billion used to pay contractors.

The most recent authorization bill, which passed the House in September 2013, contained provisions designed to strengthen embassy security in the wake of the Benghazi attacks, following the recommendations of an Accountability Review Board led by former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The bill was never taken up by the Senate, then under Democratic control, and though most of the board's 29 recommendations have been implemented, concerns remain on the Republican side about security vulnerabilities at U.S. embassies.

"Regrettably, it was not a bipartisan issue," Poblete said about reforming the department.

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that most of the Accountability Review Board's recommendations have been implemented.