Senate panel passes $30.8 billion homeland security bill

By Greta Wodele

June 17, 2005

The Senate Appropriations Committee easily approved $30.8 billion in discretionary funding Thursday for the Homeland Security Department and its programs next year.

The bill would provide $389 million less than the Bush administration requested, primarily because it does not include language proposed by President Bush to raise airline ticket fees -- a move that would have given the Transportation Security Administration's budget a $1.6 billion boost. The panel approved the measure, 28-0.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., accused Bush of putting the panel in a "difficult position" by proposing a $3 airline ticket fee hike in his budget. He said authorizers -- not appropriators -- must approve such a mandate. Byrd argued that it forced the panel to cut funding for grants to firefighters and police officers, rail security and federal aviation screeners.

"That was a non-starter," echoed Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H. He added that Senate Commerce Chairman Stevens, who oversees policy mandates for the Transportation Security Administration, is adamantly against the idea. The House appropriations and authorization committees also oppose the fee hike.

Gregg said the spending bill shifts funding around from Bush's budget proposal to focus funding on two priorities: weapons of mass destruction and border security.

To pay for increases in border security initiatives, the panel cut funding for police officers, firefighters and other first responders because states and communities have not spent $7 billion from previous years, said Gregg.

The House, which recently passed its version of the Homeland Security appropriations bill, met Bush's request of $3.6 billion for first responders. The Senate bill reduced the amount to $3.5 billion.

Border security programs would receive $600 million more than Bush requested, totaling $9.8 billion in funding next year. The panel directed the department to use the funding to hire 1,000 additional border agents to reach the goal of 10,000 more agents over the next 10 years. Gregg said the department would also spend the money on expanding training facilities, adding 2,200 more detention beds for illegal immigrants and increase the number of U.S. Customs and immigration enforcement officers.

Gregg said the bill requires the department to combine strengthened manpower with cutting-edge technology along the borders. "There is no point in having people all along the border when a lot can be done with technology," he said.

The panel also snipped funding from TSA's budget to bolster border security. Overall, TSA would receive $5 billion in fiscal 2006. The bill includes $7.9 billion for the Coast Guard, $6 billion for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division, $3.8 billion for immigration and customs enforcement, and $1.4 billion for research and development.

By Greta Wodele

June 17, 2005