Panel backs security grants, cuts modernization aid

House appropriators on Friday approved a measure to fund the Homeland Security Department next fiscal year, voting to boost spending for state and local grant programs and cut funds for the Coast Guard's troubled fleet-modernization program.

The fiscal 2008 Homeland Security appropriations measure would allocate about $36.2 billion in discretionary spending, or about $2 billion more than the White House requested. The allocation also would be about $2.5 billion more than fiscal 2007 funding.

The House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee approved the draft bill unanimously by voice vote. No amendments were offered during the debate.

Significantly, funding to help state and local emergency responders would be increased across the board. Appropriators voted to provide $400 million for port security grants, which is the amount established by congressional authorizers last year. The White House only requested $210 million, the same amount enacted for the current fiscal year.

The legislation also would provide $400 million for rail and transit security grants. The White House requested $175 million, the fiscal 2007 level. Appropriators also offered $800 million for firefighter assistance grants; $800 million for urban security grants; $500 million for state homeland security grants; and $400 million for law enforcement terrorism prevention grants.

The spending measure would create two new grant programs. One would provide $50 million to help states comply with the so-called REAL ID Act, which requires the states to issue secure and standardized identification documents to their residents starting in 2008. Another $50 million program would help fund communications equipment that could be used across jurisdictions.

But appropriators voted to provide only about $700 million for the Coast Guard's Deepwater program, which is about $450 million less than current levels and $140 million less than the administration's request. The program has been heavily criticized by government auditors and lawmakers for mismanagement and cost overruns.

Appropriators met the White House's request for $1 billion for the Secure Border Initiative and $462 million for the US-VISIT foreigner-tracking system. But they want to withhold the Secure Border Initiative funds until the Homeland Security Department submits detailed expenditure plans for all projects under it.

Democrats also inserted language that would require the department to issue a public notice and wait 15 days before waiving environmental restrictions when it comes to building fencing and infrastructure along the border. Subcommittee ranking member Harold Rogers, R-Ky., argued that the language "changes existing law, alters the intent of Congress, invites frivolous litigation and has the potential to severely inhibit DHS from addressing vulnerabilities along our borders."

The department also would have to get "support" from local communities before building infrastructure. Rogers said the requirement could provide "a local community with an effective veto over federal policy."

The spending measure would eliminate a cap on federal airport screeners. And it would give state and local governments the power to enact tougher laws on chemical security -- a provision heavily opposed by Republicans and the chemical industry.

Full committee debate is expected in June.

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