Secretary of State Blinken Seeks ‘New Era of Trust’ With Congress

During a four-hour hearing, House lawmakers pressed the top U.S. diplomat on Iran, Russia, China and diversity in the State Department.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday. (Ken Cedeno/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In his first congressional hearing since being confirmed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized his commitment to work with members of Congress to reach foreign policy goals and prioritize American families

Before rattling off a long list of President Joe Biden’s early foreign policy victories – like rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate deal, overturning Trump’s travel ban and imposing sanctions on Russia and Burma – Blinken told members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday that he hopes to usher in a “new era of trust” between the White House and Congress. 

Blinken committed to staying in the hearing for as long as the committee wanted him, marking a shift from his predecessor, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had strained relationships with lawmakers. 

“America is back at the table,” said Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the first African American to lead the panel, at the end of the hearing after every member of the committee asked Blinken questions. “There is great interest from members on both sides of the aisle to engage with you directly.”

“This is hello, not goodbye,” Blinken responded.

Pressed about China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and other foreign matters during the four-hour hearing, Blinken said that the Biden administration won’t make any major changes without consulting Congress. 

“I am committed to working with Congress — on the takeoff, and not just the landing,” Blinken said. 

When asked about Iran, Blinken assured members of the committee that the U.S. won’t offer any concessions to Iran before it is in full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and won’t lift any sanctions without consulting Congress. 

“The ball is in their court,” he said about whether Iran is serious in talking about an updated nuclear deal. 

Earlier on Wednesday, Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan announced that they plan to meet with top Chinese officials on March 18 during a stop in Anchorage, Alaska, after Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meet with allies in Japan and South Korea — the first foreign trip in their positions. 

Tensions between the U.S. and China soared during the Trump administration, and Biden called the rivalry the “biggest geopolitical test” of this century. The president had his first official call with President Xi Jinping of China last month, where he brought up human rights abuses and unfair economic practices. 

“This is an important opportunity for us to lay out in very frank terms the many concerns we have with Beijing’s actions and behavior that are challenging the security and prosperity and values of the United States and our partners and allies,” Blinken said about his upcoming trip. 

Blinken said there aren’t any plans for future meetings. 

“There’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements,” he said. “Those engagements, if they are to follow, really have to be based on the proposition that we’re seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern to us with China.”

Shifting away from foreign matters, Meeks asked Blinken about his plans to promote diversity in the State Department. 

“As chair of this committee, I’ve made addressing a lack of diversity at the State Department a central focus of our work,” the congressman said. 

Meeks said that only 3.8% of senior executive service members at the State Department are Black and only 3.1% are Hispanic, while about 5% of foreign service officers are Black and 6% are Hispanic. 

But in addition to statistics, Meeks said the change “must be marked by a shift in the culture, environment and attitudes at the department that have perpetuated institutionalized discrimination.”

Blinken responded that he is working to recruit and retain a workforce “that looks like the country it represents,” in addition to appointing the first chief diversity and inclusion officer, who will report directly to him.

“I will consider it a mark of my success or not during my tenure as secretary on whether we have been able to put in place a much more sustainable foundation for advancing true diversity at the State Department,” Blinken said. 

The secretary will face a separate, closed hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday. 

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