Senate OKs Homeland Security Finance Bill

The Senate on Thursday easily approved its first bill financing the Homeland Security Department (search), though lawmakers traded sharp words and a Republican Party leader contended that Democrats are taking a passive approach to fighting terrorism.

The 93-1 roll call illustrated lawmakers' reluctance to vote against a bill for domestic security. Only Sen. Ernest Hollings (search), D-S.C., who said the measure lacked sufficient funds for ports, voted "nay."

With the two parties vying for the political offensive, Democrats offered a parade of amendments to add millions to the bill, which was to provide $28.5 billion next year for the new agency. Majority Republicans fended them off, citing budget constraints and saying the measure was sufficient.

"I do hope members will start thinking about the concept of affordability," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (search), R-Alaska.

The back and forth underscored how domestic security, which won bipartisan consensus after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become a hotly partisan issue. That has only intensified with the approach of next year's presidential and congressional elections.

Across the Capitol, on a different spending bill, the House Appropriations Committee approved $900 million for Amtrak. That was $320 million more than an initial version of the bill, but half what the beleaguered passenger railroad says it needs to avert service cuts.

Separately, AmeriCorps' hopes of winning an extra $100 million before Congress recesses this month withered. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the money would not be in a $984 million bill for natural disaster aid the House will consider Friday, hours before beginning its summer break. Officials of the national service program have said without the money now, they will have to drop thousands of their volunteer slots.

Senate Democrats said the GOP-written Homeland Security bill -- and President Bush's plans for the department -- would shortchange emergency responders, security at chemical plants and other areas.

"Is this administration serious, or is it not serious about homeland security," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., sponsor of a defeated amendment to shift $292 million to local fire departments and help protect chemical plants and ports. "The American people think they're being secured. They are not."

After the Senate rejected his proposal to add $15 billion for emergency workers -- which nonbinding language suggested should come from reducing recent tax cuts for millionaires -- Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said GOP leaders had "put out the word" to oppose Democratic amendments.

"They're making the calculation that the political risk of rolling back the tax cut exceeds the risk of something else happening in this country," Dodd told reporters.

At the same time, Republicans released a memo from the incoming GOP chairman accusing Democrats of playing politics.

The Democratic amendments "are an effort to convince voters their party really is strong on security," wrote Ed Gillespie, who becomes Republican Party chairman on Friday. He said Democrats "increasingly drift toward opposing pre-emptive self-defense," citing criticisms of the failure to locate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

"It is a passive, reactive approach that fails to connect the dots and would put America's fate in the hands of the people who seek to destroy us," he wrote.

The department began in January, combining 22 agencies and 170,000 workers. Included are the Coast Guard and border patrol, but not the FBI or CIA.

The bill -- about the same as this year's total -- provides $380 million for an administration plan to check databases for information on foreigners entering the country.

The measure lacks $5.6 billion over the coming decade, including $890 million for 2004, that the House approved for Bush's proposal for government acquisition of antidotes and other steps to counter bioterrorism.

The Senate legislation includes nearly $2.9 billion for state and local governments, with $750 million for cities thought to face high threats of terror attacks. In two votes that split senators from rural and urban states, the Senate refused to bolster the funds for high-threat areas.

The House approved its version of the bill last month.

The Amtrak funds approved by the House committee were in a measure providing $89.3 billion for next year's transportation and Treasury Department programs. That is $2.7 billion -- or 3 percent -- more than this year.

Highway spending would get a healthy increase over 2003, while airport and mass transit improvements would stay level. There is also $500 million for helping state and local governments overhaul voting systems.

In a victory for Worldcom Inc., which recently agreed to pay $750 million, the largest securities fine in U.S. history, the committee voted to require a report on whether it is fit to receive government contracts. Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., had considered an amendment barring contracts, but opponents said he lacked the votes.