WASHINGTON – The House on Wednesday approved a Coast Guard (search) spending bill that significantly increases personnel and gives officers authority to carry firearms and make arrests for violations of maritime security (search) regulations.
The legislation, passed on a 425-1 vote, emphasizes the Coast Guard's security role. It raises active-duty numbers to 45,500 from the current level of 37,000.
The bill, the result of a House-Senate compromise, approves spending of $8.2 billion in the budget year beginning Oct. 1 for Coast Guard activities, which include search and rescue missions, national defense, interdiction of contraband and maritime resource protection, as well as protecting the nation's 95,000 miles of coastline.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, (search) said he had concerns that some of the traditional functions of the agency would suffer because of the stress on security operations, but was optimistic the bill would "get the service back to an acceptable state of mission balance."
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., said new money to lease helicopters will help the Coast Guard stem the flow of illegal narcotics along the West Coast. He said $39 million to lease and deploy helicopters could stop illegal drugs worth 20 times that amount.
The compromise bill, however, does not include language in the original House bill that would have required the Coast Guard to approve security plans for every foreign vessel that enters a U.S. port.
Instead, because of the high cost involved, House and Senate negotiators decided to stay with the current system under which a foreign government or its designated agent is responsible for approving each ship's security plan.
The legislation requires the development of a long-range vessel tracking system and a plan to improve the collection and sharing of maritime intelligence by federal agencies.
The Senate is expected to pass the legislation in the near future, sending it to the president for his signature. The sole House vote against the bill was cast by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
Last year the Coast Guard was put under the jurisdiction of the new Homeland Security Department.