Panel begins work on Homeland Security authorization bill
One of its first decisions was to reject, on a party-line 16-12 vote, a comprehensive Democratic substitute because of GOP fears that would encourage other committees to stake jurisdictional claims and seek sequential referrals.
"This is our first time out of the box," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "Sequential referrals would weaken us as a committee."
King said quickly approving the authorization measure would "maintain the integrity of the committee."
Committee members were scheduled to wade through numerous amendments during the day, perhaps working late into the evening and possibly into Thursday as well.
Homeland Security Chairman Chris Cox's attempt last year to mark up an authorization bill failed because of the reluctance of several GOP committee chairmen and opposition from Democrats. This year, Cox has secured assurances from other chairmen that they would tackle his authorization language within a week to ready the bill for a floor vote mid-May.
Committee Democrats argued the panel should set priorities for the department by authorizing $7 billion more for its operations than the Bush administration requested.
"What we do today will help set the course for where the department is headed over the next year," said Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. "As we go through this process this week, there are homeland security priorities that are critical and must be addressed if we are to protect our nation. Unfortunately, the base bill that is being introduced does not address the priorities."
Cox said he agreed with several of the provisions in the Democratic substitute, and said the committee would take up several of them -- such as overhauling the Transportation Security Administration, chemical plant security, interoperability and port security -- as stand-alone bills. "I would like to keep our bills to single subjects so the rest of the House ... understands what we're doing," Cox said.
Meanwhile, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday began the first of a series of hearings into managing the risks of terrorist attacks on chemical production and storage facilities.
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins said the panel's investigation will seek to balance the need for improved security with placing "an unreasonable burden on the chemical industry."
Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., whose 2001 chemical security bill languished in the Senate, testified in favor of requiring chemical facilities to develop alternative production methods that could eliminate the use of the most dangerous chemicals.
Richard Falkenrath of the Brookings Institution suggested a tiered structure that would organize chemical facilities according to their likelihood of being attacked. "Companies [would] make their own cost-benefit calculations of either complying with the standard or modifying their business practices such in a way that knocks them into a lower tier" with lower standards, Falkenrath said.