WASHINGTON – Better communication systems, improved rail security and more rigorous oversight are high on the list of homeland security issues Democrats plan to examine when they assume control of Congress in January.
"You'll see a committee that is not afraid to take on tough issues," Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Thompson said he told Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that he wants to meet with the department's senior leadership more often than in the past, ideally once a month. "Twice a year is not enough," he said.
The issue of "interoperability," whether police and emergency communication systems are compatible, is at the top, he said.
"The public thinks that first responders can already talk to each other, but the majority can't," he said. "We have to force coordination and cooperation."
Thompson said he and a colleague "sat there like in shock" when Chertoff informed them last week that the department is only now undertaking its first study on the future of interoperability.
Gaps in communication caused by different radio frequencies used by emergency workers have been cited as a hindrance to rescue efforts after the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
Thompson said "a real rail security plan" doesn't exist. While between $8 and $9 is spent per air passenger on air security measures, only 2 cents to 3 cents per rail passenger is spent on rail security, he said.
He criticized the border security plan as showing a patchwork approach instead of being comprehensive, and he said that artificial distinctions are drawn between immigration policy and border security. "It's all one package," he said.
How some revamped and enhanced programs would be funded is not clear. Additional rail and port security measures could add billions of dollars to the federal budget.
In the Senate, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who will take over the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, plans to provide rigorous oversight of the Homeland Security Department, his spokeswoman, Leslie Phillips, told the AP on Wednesday.
Lieberman has said that he and the outgoing chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, had worked well together while passing significant legislation. "I expect to continue working in a bipartisan relationship with her and the rest of my colleagues on the committee to further improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government," he said after being named to head the committee.
Lieberman's priorities, Phillips said, were:
—Interoperable communications equipment.
—More resources to state and local first responders.
—Homeland security grant distribution.
—More transit security funding.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that he looked forward to making progress on changes in immigration policy "to bring people out of the shadows while strengthening our borders."
"Years of dawdling have worsened our border security and made it harder to fix this broken system," Leahy said. "We should not let partisan politics and intolerance continue to delay and derail effective reform. Getting a reasonable and realistic comprehensive immigration reform and border security bill enacted will not be easy."