WASHINGTON – On his second trip to Capitol Hill in two days to testify about his budget request, Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff faced a skeptical reception Friday.
"Millions of lives are at stake and we cannot continue to protect the homeland on the cheap," Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in prepared remarks for the House Homeland Security Committee hearing.
Thompson listed all the problems the department was up against when last year's budget was presented and added, "This may be a new year, but in some instances it feels like deja vu."
Chertoff, at the hearing to defend the budget plan, maintains that the department has made progress in building systems to protect the nation.
"We must focus on the greatest risks and be flexible to changing threats, disciplined in our use of resources, and fully committed to building a department that will meet future challenges," he said in his prepared statement.
As just one example of progress, Chertoff pointed out the department had ended the "catch and release" practice on the border whereby illegal aliens were released on their own recognizance once caught. Many of those illegal aliens were never found again. Now, with 100 percent detention, Chertoff said, the word has gotten out, creating "a strong disincentive to cross illegally in the first place."
A paper prepared by the panel's Democratic staff blasts President Bush's spending blueprint as falling "drastically short in several critical areas," including securing the borders, ports, mass transit, rail, aviation, cyberspace and critical infrastructure.
Thompson said the administration's budget proposal would "decimate funding for key homeland security programs" and leave the nation both vulnerable to another attack and grossly unprepared to respond to natural disasters.
Ranking Republican Peter King, R-N.Y., also said there is not enough money in the president's budget to fund homeland security adequately.
But Chertoff on Thursday defended the budget as "sound, simple and ample," adding that even with an enhanced budget, "we have to exercise fiscal discipline and there are tradeoffs."
In an interview with The Associated Press, King said that what he sees in the budget request for the Homeland Security Department is "almost token increases."
King says he thinks Chertoff is doing "the best job he can" and now has a decent management team to work with. But King says the budget calls for cuts he strongly opposes in grants to first responders and firefighters.
Even more, he thinks the administration's "whole philosophy" needs change.
"We're at war," he said. "We decide how much we have to spend and then we spend it." He noted that White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters on Thursday, "You do have to make some choices with the scarce resources available to you."
King countered: "The resources for Homeland Security should not be scarce. It should not be just another Cabinet department. ... With a $2.9 trillion budget, we should be able to find a few billion more for homeland security. Either we're at war with Islamic terrorism or we're not."
One issue vexing both King and Thompson is a program meant to increase the reliability of communications systems that emergency workers must rely on.
Both lawmakers say a $1 billion fund that the Commerce Department expects to receive from the auction later this year of additional radio spectrum was never meant to be a substitute for grants to state and local first responders. Instead, they thought, it was intended to be a supplement.
Thompson is also concerned about the budget request for 600 additional detention beds for immigration enforcement. He believes those are not nearly enough if the administration is committed as it has said to increase enforcement against employers who hire illegal aliens.
In a visit to the Homeland Security's headquarters Thursday, Bush praised the department for, in his view, improving airline safety, cargo inspection, border security and emergency response.
The president said the formation of the department has been "difficult and complicated," but he called the agency's progress substantial.