WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security (search) is seeking money and employees to secure U.S. borders under President Bush's budget, while raising airline passenger fees, as a Senate panel endorsed a new leader for the agency.
Monday's $34.2 billion budget request for 2006 also proposes reorganizing state and local funding formulas to give the most money to high-risk areas.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, meanwhile, endorsed Michael Chertoff's (search) nomination as the department's secretary, 14-0, with Sen. Carl Levin (search), D-Mich., voting "present."
Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the full Senate could be asked as early as Tuesday for a confirmation vote and predicted Chertoff will be approved easily. He would succeed Tom Ridge, who resigned.
Levin voted "present" — neither for or against the nomination — in a mild protest for being denied Justice Department information about interrogation techniques on terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Chertoff headed the department's criminal division that led the terror investigation after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Homeland Security is among only a few agencies that would be spared an overall spending cut next year under Bush's budget. It asks Congress for a 6.8 percent funding increase for the department from current levels — on top of $6.9 billion required by law.
"We are safer, but we are not safe," Acting Homeland Security Secretary James Loy said, unveiling the budget plan.
The budget plan calls for a 10 percent increase — to $16 billion — in border and transportation security spending. It would add 210 new border patrol agents to fill gaps along the southwest border and coastal areas; step up border surveillance by $19.8 million; and install technology to help customs and border patrol agents detect weapons of mass destruction and prescreen cargo before ships reach U.S. ports.
The plan falls far short of increasing the number of full-time border patrol agents by 2,000 annually for five years, as promised by an intelligence-gathering reform approved in December by President Bush. The 210 new jobs would only replace about half of the agents who left the agency over the last year, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council.
"It's simply not enough to keep up with the job that the American public expects us to do, and that we want to do," Bonner said. "We'd love to control the border, but we can't do it with the resources we have."
Loy said the agency had to consider "competing and other very important priorities."
Most of the department's spending hike would be paid by collecting $4.8 billion in fees — largely by adding $3 to the cost of airline tickets for passengers. Fees would increase in 2006 from $2.50 to $5.50 for each leg of a round-trip ticket, and from $5 to $8 for passengers making several stops on a one-way ticket.
The plan sparked an immediate protest from the commercial airlines.
"A tax on travelers is a tax on airlines," said James C. May, president and chief executive officer of the Air Transport Association. "We believe any new tax or fee raises ticket prices and the cost of airlines doing business."
The budget would cut $420 million, or 11 percent, from state and local coordination efforts. Of $3.6 billion set aside for grants, training programs and technical assistance for local and state first responders, $2 billion will be meted out on a risk and vulnerability priority. Loy said DHS so far has given $17 billion to state and local authorities, and "it is time for us to focus more on the actual threat, the risks intended to that threat, the vulnerabilities associated with that threat."
The budget also calls for adding a new assistant secretary for policy and planning, following recommendations set forth in several recent studies that criticized the department as lacking a clear focus.