WASHINGTON – House and Senate negotiators approved a $31.9 billion measure Thursday for the Homeland Security Department (search) for the budget year that starts on Saturday, directing a higher percentage of first-responder grants to states with greater risks of disaster.
The measure, which faces a vote next week, would boost the agency's budget by about 5 percent. Democrats said it still would shortchange homeland security, especially after the London subway bombings in July and the recent hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast (search).
"Congress should be approving a more robust homeland security bill," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (search) of West Virginia, the top negotiator for Senate Democrats.
For example, first-responder grants for states and local governments would total $3.3 billion, $680 billion less than last year, for a cut of about 17 percent.
President 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.
About two-thirds of first-responder 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 the money be risk-based. It does continue a trend toward a more risk-based distribution of the grants, a priority for states such as New York and New Jersey.
Only two of 11 of the annual appropriations bills for agencies whose budgets Congress funds each year have been passed into law as the end of the fiscal year looms Saturday.
That required lawmakers to move ahead on a stopgap bill to keep most government agencies from having to shut down. Agencies would have to function with their programs frozen at current levels or below current spending levels if the House or Senate had proposed cuts.
The House was poised to pass the bill late Thursday. It would take Senate approval Friday to avoid a partial government shutdown.
The Homeland Security measure seeks to focus the agency more on preventing a terrorist attack with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, as well as improve border security, said Sen. Judd Gregg (search), R-N.H.
"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," said Gregg, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.
Despite the London subway bombings, the bill freezes rail and transit security grants at current level of $150 million.
Some $9 billion was approved for border security programs. That is enough to hire 1,000 new border patrol agents.
The Coast Guard's Deepwater fleet modernization program would receive $933 million. It is slightly less than what the administration sought but far more than the $500 million approved by the House.
The bill largely endorses the reorganization plan announced by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in July. That plan would create a separate preparedness operation that would allow the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency to focus on response and recovery.
Some Democrats want to make FEMA a separate agency, but the bill "leaves FEMA still buried in the bowels of the Homeland Security agency," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.
The reorganization plan would create new top-level positions to handle intelligence, cybersecurity and general policy matters.
Obey won approval a provision that requires the administration to break down Hurricane Katrina-related spending in far greater detail as it issues weekly reports to Congress. All spending more than $50 million would have to be reported, as well as all contracts and credit card purchases.