WASHINGTON – The Bush administration and Democrats finally agree on something: Both say the $397.4 billion spending plan that Congress completed last week shortchanged anti-terrorism funds for state and local emergency workers.
Though Democrats have been making that charge for weeks, the White House joined in publicly only in the past several days. Both say that while President Bush proposed $3.5 billion in new aid to help state and local officials prepare for terrorist attacks, the new bill provided less. The administration says the new money amounts to $1.3 billion.
"There's a lot in there that could have and should have been done differently, particularly in the area of homeland defense," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Wednesday as he criticized the reduction in Bush's proposal.
The bill - which Bush was expected to sign anyway on Thursday - does contain $3.5 billion for local police, fire fighters and other emergency workers. But about $2.2 billion of that is for existing programs that cover broad law enforcement and emergency purposes, like buying police cars or responding to floods.
Last Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge complained about the cut in Bush's plan. He also criticized the bill for specifying how some funds should be spent, which he said would limit the ability of state and local officials to decide how to use the money.
"That flexibility isn't available, isn't attached to all the dollars that we've received from Congress," Ridge said. He added that only $1.3 billion can be used "for the broad-based, needs-based grant program that the president had originally sought."
The overall measure finances every agency except the military for the federal budget year that runs through Sept. 30.
Several GOP aides to congressional leaders and the House and Senate Appropriations committees declined to comment Wednesday on the administration's remarks, while others could not be reached. Congress is in recess this week.
The White House comments could be an effort to divert criticism from state and local officials, who have lambasted lawmakers for not including more new anti-terror funds at a time when many governments are facing budget deficits of their own.
Christine LaPaille, spokeswoman for the National Governors' Association, said state officials wanted the bill to start a permanent federal commitment to helping them pay for battling terrorism.
"They need Congress to fund these programs as proposed by the president," LaPaille said. "And that didn't happen this session, and that is a problem."
Capitol Hill aides from both parties noted that to pay for his $3.5 billion initiative, Bush's 2003 budget proposed terminating several programs and using their funds. But those programs were so popular that Congress would never eliminate them, and included grants for firefighting, hiring local police officers and financing a wide variety of law enforcement initiatives.
As the legislation was moving through Congress, Democrats criticized it for shortchanging domestic security and noted that Bush and the GOP shot down several Democratic efforts to boost the funds.
"For months, President Bush and the Republican leadership have touted their commitment to $3.5 billion in new first responder funding," said a briefing paper by Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. "However, these same leaders have repeatedly rejected efforts to actually enact that commitment and have attempted to use budget shell games to paper over their broken promise."
Compared to other sections of the spending bill, the funds for emergency workers contained few projects for lawmakers' home districts. Instead, some portions of the money were designated for specific purposes like equipment or training.
Some hometown projects were inserted, including:
-$18 million for Dartmouth College's Institute for Security Technology Studies, which existed before the Sept. 11 attacks and has been championed by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.
-$18 million for the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, an organization established four years after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building there.