WASHINGTON – The GOP-controlled House on Thursday passed a $42.3 billion budget for the government's homeland security efforts after a debate that demonstrated resistance for some of the spending cuts required under austere budget times.
The measure passed 231-188 after lawmakers eased cuts to popular grant programs for local fire departments and after GOP conservatives tried but failed in several attempts to add millions of dollars to a variety of border security initiatives.
It's the first of the 12 annual spending bills funding the day-to-day operations of federal agencies for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. It's also the first concrete step to implement the budget blueprint approved by House Republicans in April.
The homeland security measure bears a $1.1 billion cut of almost 3 percent from the spending levels for the ongoing budget year that were enacted in April in a compromise between House Republicans and President Barack Obama.
But far more stringent spending bills — they contain cuts to health research, student aid, food aid for low-income pregnant women and energy efficiency programs — will follow this summer.
Republicans focused the homeland security cuts on port and transit security grants, awards for high-risk cities, and grants to local fire departments to help them with salaries and equipment purchases, proposing to slash them by $2.1 billion below Obama's requests — cuts of more than half.
On Wednesday a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers restored $320 million in cuts to grants for fire departments by a sweeping 333-87 vote, but only by imposing an unrealistic cut on the agency's bureaucratic operations.
Border state Republicans were successful in some but not all of their attempts to add money to favored programs. Rep. Ted Poe of Texas gained $10 million for cell phone towers along the U.S.-Mexico border but could not secure $100 million for detention beds to hold illegal aliens facing deportation. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas unsuccessfully pressed for, among others, a $50 million amendment for drone aircraft, helicopters and boats to patrol the border.
The cuts to grant programs freed up funding for core homeland security programs like border security, immigration control, airport security and the Coast Guard. An amendment by Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., designed to boost airport screening operations undertaken by private companies instead of federal workers was adopted 219-204.
The measure adds almost $2 billion above the administration's request for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief accounts, which were already facing a $3 billion or so shortfall before the recent wave of tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama and flooding along the Mississippi River.
The legislation cuts off funding for new advanced airport scanners that have sparked outrage over their revealing images of travelers' bodies. The measure denies the administration's $76 million request for an additional 275 scanners.
Budgetary factors rather than protests from privacy advocates sparked the cut. The Transportation Security Administration is trying hard to modify the machines so that they won't produce revealing images, but the software isn't yet ready.
The underlying measure wouldn't affect the 500 or so machines already in place at 78 of the nation's airports or the 500 just funded in a recent spending bill.
An amendment by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, to prohibit TSA from relying on the advanced screening machines as the primary means of screening passengers was defeated 300-123.
The measure would also take away collective bargaining rights from the nation's 44,000 airport screeners.
TSA head John Pistole had agreed in February to grant screeners limited union rights for the first time since the agency was formed a decade ago. But Republicans have complained that giving the workers union rights could jeopardize security. TSA workers are in the process of voting for which of two federal unions to represent them.
The House voted 218-205 in favor of an amendment that would effectively override Pistole's decision by prohibiting use of federal funds for collective bargaining for the workers. That provision is expected to face stiff resistance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Also Thursday, the House began debate on a $72.5 billion measure funding veterans programs and construction projects at military bases. A vote to pass the bill was expected later this month.
Associated Press writer Sam Hananel contributed to this report.