Senate OK's homeland security bill

$31.8 billion excludes added funding to boost mass transit protection

July 15, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Senate approved last night a $31.8 billion spending bill for homeland security, rejecting an 11th-hour push to boost funds for safeguarding the nation's transit systems in the aftermath of last week's bombings in London.

The bill, which passed 96-1, includes funding for everything from border patrols to air marshals for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

It also provides $200 million for port security grants, up $50 million from this year's grants, but lawmakers concerned about gaps in port security said more is needed, and they plan to push for more spending and accountability from the Department of Homeland Security.

The most contentious debate came over whether to significantly increase money to help protect the nation's buses, subways and trains -- from the $100 million in the original legislation to more than $1 billion.

Proponents pointed to the London subway and bus bombings as evidence of a threat at home and said $100 million - a $50 million cut from this year's budget - is a paltry offering to protect mass transit systems that carry millions of people every day.

Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who heads the committee that oversees the homeland security budget, argued that the $6 billion the bill earmarks for border security is a higher and more practical priority in a budget stretched to its limits.

"Anybody who has any intellectual honesty about how we pursue terrorists must be ready to say there isn't enough money in the federal treasury to effectively address securing the entire transit systems of America," Gregg said.

Threats from outside, he said, "are the threats we can handle with more money."

Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, a Republican, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, a Democrat, and other lawmakers said state and local governments are still struggling to give their transit systems the basics. Considering the billions spent on aviation security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they said, mass transit security needs an infusion of cash.

"There are obvious necessities that are needed," said Sarbanes. "Security cameras, radios, training security personnel. Those are not extravagant requests."

Sarbanes called the failure to add transit funding "a terrible judgment."

Last year, he noted, the Senate passed a bill - which came out of the Banking Committee, on which Shelby is chairman and Sarbanes is the top Democrat - to authorize spending more on transit security.

"This is the first chance to put the resources behind it, and they won't do it," Sarbanes said. "We're just trying to get the most basic set of systems in place."

The bill also provides $3.8 billion for immigration and customs efforts, and nearly $3 billion for first responders. It also funds agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration and the Secret Service.

The Senate version of the bill will have to be reconciled with the version the House passed this year. The bills differ slightly on transit and port security.

Even with the money provided by the bill, some are concerned about the nation's ports. Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who heads the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said increasing spending over the next few years to secure the nation's ports is a top priority.

"Based on the hearings I've had over the past two years, I believe our biggest vulnerabilities are our seaports and our chemical facilities," Collins said.

Collins is the Senate sponsor of legislation setting budget and regulatory guidelines for the Department of Homeland Security. The bill authorizes spending $400 million a year on port security for six years, beginning in fiscal 2007.

Collins said she hopes to push the bill through her committee this year and that her partner in the House, Rep. Jane Harman of California, can do the same.

"What I've been trying to do is not just look backward, but to look ahead at where we're most vulnerable," Collins said. "I think it's an area that's really underfunded."

The port security grants go to communities around the country. Maryland, home to the port of Baltimore, the nation's eighth largest, has received $14.5 million since 2002.

During the Senate debate over the spending bill this week, lawmakers approved an amendment by Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, to require the department's inspector general to report to Congress on the agency's response to recommendations from its watchdog.

Kerry, who made port security an issue in his campaign against President Bush last year, cited the inspector general's report, which said that of $564 million in port security grants since 2002, about $106 million, 21 percent, has been spent.

"We are as exposed today on a number of those fronts as we were on Sept. 12" 2001, Kerry said this week.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, was the only senator to vote against the bill. Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who has been hospitalized in Baltimore for tests this week, was one of three senators who did not vote.

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