Senators face trade offs to fund border security plan

Senate appropriators announced funding cuts Tuesday for several major homeland security programs to cover costs associated with the high-priced Republican-driven plan to boost personnel and infrastructure to secure the nation's borders.

The Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee agreed unanimously to provide about $31.7 billion in discretionary spending in its version of the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security spending bill.

But appropriators were unable to fill gaps in the budget, leaving the spending plan about $515 million below what the White House requested, and about $350 million less than the amount approved by the House, aides said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up the bill Thursday.

Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the funding shortfall occurred for two reasons.

First, appropriators had to add money into the spending bill to sustain the personnel and infrastructure for border security and immigration enforcement that was recently approved as part of an emergency supplemental spending bill for this year. "The carrying cost for the supplemental is about $600 million that we had to pick up," Gregg said.

Second, appropriators rejected a White House plan that would have generated more than $1.2 billion by increasing airline passenger fees.

Gregg said he was only given about $650 million from Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., to fill all the spending gaps.

As a result of the budget shortfall, Gregg said the subcommittee was unable to provide funding for an acceleration of the Coast Guard's Integrated Deepwater System program; could not fully fund the Homeland Security Department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, and reduced funding for first-responder grants.

The subcommittee took $200 million from the department's Science and Technology Directorate to help fund the nuclear detection office. But funding for the office is $442 million in the bill -- about $100 million less than the White House requested.

Aides said the directorate has about $500 million in unobligated funds but has failed to offer to the subcommittee a spending plan. "We figured if they're not spending [the money] they have to report to us," an aide said. "We've had a hard time getting not only justification of their budget but also reports on what they've been doing with the money."

About $3.2 billion is provided for first-responder grants and assistance, which is $34 million less than current level, aides said. The amount is about $500 million more than the White House requested but still $182 million below what the House approved, they added.

The bill, however, does provide funding for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents and 1,000 more detention beds in fiscal 2007. "If I had had my druthers and we'd had more money, I would have put more border agents in and more beds in," Gregg said. "But arguably the [number of] beds and the number of border agents is pretty close to where we would have ended up if we hadn't had the supplemental but we had a full allocation."

Gregg added that he wants to see the department increase its ability to train new Border Patrol personnel from 2,000 agents a year currently to between 2,500 and 3,000 agents per year.

Overall, the bill provides about $8.2 billion for the Coast Guard; $6.6 billion for Customs and Border Protection; $6.1 billion for the Transportation Security Administration; $3.9 billion for Immigration and Customs Enforcement; $2.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and $400 million for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said he plans to introduce amendments Thursday relating to FEMA, the inspection of airline cargo and passengers and making sure state and local governments have effective evacuation plans.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he plans to introduce an amendment Thursday that would require Homeland Security to delay mandates under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative by 17 months. The initiative will require all travelers, including U.S. citizens, to and from the Americas, the Caribbean, and Bermuda to have a passport or other accepted document that establishes the bearer's identity and nationality to enter or re-enter the United States.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she will introduce an amendment Thursday that would make it a criminal offense to build, finance or use underground tunnels along the U.S. borders for illegal activity.

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