WASHINGTON – A House panel gave a tongue-lashing to the Department of Homeland Security Wednesday before approving a $32.1 billion spending plan for the troubled agency.
The Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote the agency's budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 after quarreling over — and defeating — Democratic proposals to boost funding for port and border security and grants to emergency first-responders.
The GOP-drafted budget bill for the department would devote $19.6 billion to various border security and immigration enforcement programs, a 9 percent increase over current funding.
The bill effectively boosts the department's budget by 6 percent over current levels, but still registers about $200 million less than Bush sought, since the Appropriations panel rejected for the second year in a row a Bush administration plan to raise airline ticket taxes. The fees were to finance about $1.3 billion in additional spending by the agency.
Despite awarding the budget increase, lawmakers had harsh words for the sprawling agency, assembled from 22 different federal agencies in 2003.
"No longer will we tolerate excuses and delays due to reorganizations, personnel shortages, and poor financial management," said Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky. "Those days are over."
Added Martin Sabo of Minnesota, top Democratic overseer of the agency: "The bureaucratic mess is worse than I ever imagined."
Sabo sponsored an amendment, adopted by voice vote, that would give the agency authority to devise plans to boost security for the many chemical plants scattered around the United States. The amendment is likely to be knocked out of the bill during floor debate since it intrudes on the turf of the Homeland Security Committee.
Meanwhile, President Bush was expected as early as Wednesday to send Congress details about $1.9 billion in new border security funds requested in his Monday night address on immigration.
But Bush and the Senate — which included $1.9 billion in an Iraq war supplemental bill currently in House-Senate talks — have much different ideas about how to spend the extra border security funds. The Senate focuses on capital investment such as new helicopters, vehicles and boats for the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard.
Of Bush's request, about $1 billion is expected to go toward National Guard deployments and for new Border Patrol agents.
In all, the House plan approved Wednesday would spend $4.2 billion on ports security in the upcoming budget year — a 12 percent increase. The Senate has yet to write a companion bill.
The House measure includes:
—$2 billion for Coast Guard port and waterway security.
—$2.6 billion for airline passenger and baggage screeners.
—$1.7 billion for ship cargo inspection and trade operations, combined with a mandate to double the amount of cargo currently screened.
—$178 million for nuclear detectors.
—$139 million to expand security programs to 58 foreign seaports.
The plans would provide $200 million in port grants for security programs — half of what would be required annually under a port security bill that the House overwhelmingly approved earlier this month.
The spending plans also would provide nearly $20 billion for border protection, $3.2 billion for emergency responders, and $6.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other disaster preparedness programs.
Meanwhile, Rogers earmarked $41 million for an agency data center that would mirror information processing work done at a northern Mississippi facility obtained by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. He hopes it will eventually be located in his eastern Kentucky district.
The House panel subsequently approved a $30 billion spending bill for the Energy Department, but not before lawmakers made more cuts in a Bush administration proposal to resume fuel reprocessing in the commercial nuclear industry.
The reprocessing initiative was slashed by $150 million earlier this week and the full Appropriations Committee cut it by another $30 million Wednesday. The Energy Department had sought $250 million as an initial installment for the 2007 fiscal year.
The legislation provides funds for Energy Department activities and Army Corps of Engineers water projects.