WASHINGTON – Congress sent President Bush a $32 billion homeland security bill Friday with big increases for patrolling borders, fewer grants for local first responders and a freeze in transit security funding.
The bill, passed by the Senate on a voice vote, also facilitates a Homeland Security Department (search) reorganization that strips disaster preparedness from the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency's portfolio so that it can focus on responding to events like hurricanes and followup recovery efforts.
Democrats complained that theindependent agency before it was folded into the newly created department in 2002. They also said it would shortchange local police, firefighters and emergency medical services as well as security for passenger rail and subway systems.
The legislation increases the department's overall budget by 5 percent. Its supporters said any more would have forced cuts in other Cabinet departments already being squeezed in a tight budget year for most domestic agencies.
Two border security agencies are getting hefty 10 percent increases that, when added to emergency funds passed earlier this year, would pay for 1,500 new border patrol agents. That move reflects a desire by lawmakers to place more attention on missions other than screening airline passengers.
"The department needs to be nimble and responsive, not bureaucratic and slow. It needs to target limited resources on future threats, not simply the threats posed by the attacks of September 11," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (search), D-W.Va., the only senator to speak during a brief debate.
In a written statement, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said: "Were we able to fully meet every need? No, given fiscal constraints, we focused our limited resources on eliminating the most serious and detrimental vulnerabilities of our homeland security."
The bill cuts funding for first-responder grants for states and local governments by about 17 percent, $680 million less than last year. Gregg defended the cuts, saying the department has been slow to distribute grants from prior years and has $6.2 billion in reserve.
It moves toward a more risk-based formula for distributing first-responder grants, a priority for states such as New York and New Jersey. About two-thirds of grants would be allocated according to the risk of terrorist attack or natural disaster. That move fell short of recommendations by the Sept. 11 commission that all grants should be based on their risk of being attacked by terrorists.
The formula for first-responder grants had pitted lawmakers from smaller states that benefited disproportionately from the old formula, against states — often represented by Democrats — with large urban areas.
Despite the London subway bombings, the bill freezes rail and transit security grants at $150 million.
The bill also includes healthy budget increases of more than 10 percent to upgrade explosives screening technology at airports with a focus on procuring smaller machines. The measure also limits the number of full-time airport screeners employed by the Transportation Security Agency (search) to 45,000.
Bush proposed financing a $1.7 billion budget increase for the department with a $3 increase in the tax assessed each way on airline tickets. Lawmakers rejected the idea, but that meant spending cuts in other agencies and belt-tightening in Homeland Security to come up with the overall increase.
"This ill-considered (ticket tax) proposal resulted in real cuts in firefighter grants, first-responder grants, Coast Guard operations, and in the number of airport screeners," Byrd said.
The bill also contains a provision, authored by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., requiring FEMA to provide much more complete information on how $62 billion in hurricane relief funds is being spent, including a full accounting of contracts and the amount of government credit card purchases.
Lawmakers have been dismayed at the paucity of information that has been supplied to Congress under weekly reports required when passing the $62 billion in aid. According to FEMA's latest report, $42 billion remains available in the agency's disaster relief fund.