Democrats seek funds for responder communications

A growing chorus of Democrats is seeking billions of dollars in congressional funding to improve communications for emergency responders after problems hampered relief efforts stemming from Hurricane Katrina.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan on Tuesday was planning to offer an amendment to the budget resolution that would provide a "down payment" of $5 billion for the Homeland Security Department to purchase equipment and conduct training. The money is part of a $15 billion allocation that Stabenow and her supporters envision over the next few years.

"The lack of this communication for America's first responders has put them and put all of us -- all of our communities -- in danger," Stabenow said during a press briefing.

But her bill and others like it have failed in the past. Congress has approved $14 billion since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks for states to use to bolster the communications of emergency responders. "This is a life-and-death issue," said Sen. Carl Levin, also a Michigander. He said that a "focused source of money" for this equipment is essential.

"Whatever we have done has not been enough," added Sen. Mary Landrieu, who represents the devastated state of Louisiana. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said if the federal government does not provide the funds, "it ain't gonna happen." Another proponent is Sen. Barbara Boxer, whose state of California is notorious for earthquakes, mudslides and other natural disasters.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has expressed worries in recent days about the ability of communications systems to work across jurisdictions, but it was unclear at deadline whether he supports the amendment. His office did not return calls.

At the briefing, Stabenow expressed hope that Frist, who visited the hurricane-stricken region, and other Republicans would back the proposal. She said Frist and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have pinpointed communications problems as a top priority.

There are indications that some Republicans want the matters addressed locally. "We're keenly interested in the reports of communications problems that police and other emergency workers encountered in the New Orleans area," Kevin Schweers, spokesman for House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, wrote in an e-mail.

"So far, however, most of these seem to involve a need for local cooperation to sort out frequencies and planning to provide a source for emergency electricity that will permit radios to work when the normal power fails and batteries die."

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform panel, is expected to raise concerns about communications capacity at upcoming hearings. The panel holds its first hearing on Hurricane Katrina this Thursday. Waxman outlined his concerns in a Sept. 6 letter to Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., among other lawmakers, has spoken in recent days of the need for more funding to bolster emergency communications. Several other lawmakers, including Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., are preparing bills to address the issue.

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