Congress faces series of homeland security decisions

While talk about improving the economy and fiscal responsibility is likely to dominate the early days of the new Congress, lawmakers and key congressional committees are also expected to address a handful of homeland security issues through legislation and hearings in the next few months.

Indeed, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., said he plans to hold a series of high-profile hearings beginning in February on the threat of "homegrown terrorism," a term that refers to U.S. citizens being converted to radical Islamic extremism and carrying out terrorist attacks inside the United States.

But there are several other meaty, policy-intensive issues left unfinished in the last Congress, setting the stage for battles that lawmakers, industry officials, and lobbyists will confront in the coming weeks.

Cybersecurity

The Senate is taking the lead on legislation to improve the government's ability to protect critical information technology networks. Just before the Christmas recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote to President Obama asking for the administration to weigh in on the matter.

"It is my intent to bring cybersecurity legislation to the Senate floor for consideration early in the 112th Congress," Reid wrote to Obama on December 17. "As such, it is imperative that you are prepared to engage with us and provide this input at the earliest possible date next year."

Reid previously wrote Obama asking for input but received no response. Ultimately, Reid wants to combine cybersecurity provisions from bills written by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee, with input from lawmakers on other key panels such as Judiciary and Intelligence.

Border Security

Perhaps no homeland security issue fueled more controversy last year than divisions over how to fix the nation's immigration system and better secure U.S. borders.

Lawmakers tried to forge immigration legislation last year but a deal fell apart, largely over GOP objections that not enough was being done to secure U.S. borders.

House and Senate Homeland Security committees are both expected to conduct oversight of border security, though it was unclear if either would try to write a stand-alone bill.

The Senate panel also plans to examine how to strengthen programs aimed at preventing terrorists from traveling to the United States.

One issue lawmakers and the Obama administration will confront is what to do with the SBInet program, which was created to build a virtual fence using technology along the southern border. About $1 billion has been spent to date.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano froze funding last year to expand the project beyond two test phases in Arizona. The funding freeze remains in place pending a department review.

"We expect the results shortly and as soon as we have secured FY11 funding, we will move forward with the administration's new approach to Southwest border technology," DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said in a statement.

King said the matter needs to be resolved. "I'm not questioning the suspension of it, but the fact is we've gone a year with nothing happening," he said. "That's unacceptable."

For now, DHS has been granting SBInet prime contractor Boeing temporary extensions to continue its work. The most recent extension expires January 18.

Immigration Enforcement

Beyond border security, House Republicans are expected to closely scrub what the administration is doing to enforce immigration laws.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, wants to expand the federal E-Verify program, which allows employers to verify that a worker is legal, his spokeswoman said.

One proposal his committee is expected to consider would give companies incentives to use E-Verify, as well as liability protection if they are found to have hired unauthorized workers.

Smith is expected to hold hearings on the administration's worksite enforcement efforts, or what it is doing to prevent illegal immigrants from getting jobs. The previous Democratic-controlled Congress urged the administration to prioritize identifying and deporting illegal immigrants who committed serious crimes.

The GOP-controlled House is likely to push the administration to do more to round up and deport illegal immigrants at worksites and fine those companies employing them. King said he expects to work closely on the issue with Smith, who is also the second top Republican on the House Homeland panel.

PATRIOT Act

Lawmakers face a Feb. 28 deadline when three provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act expire.

The provisions give the government the ability to use roving wiretaps to monitor the communications of suspects; obtain special court orders forcing businesses to turn over evidence; and conduct surveillance on a "lone wolf," somebody not knowingly associated with terrorists.

Last year, Congress simply reauthorized the provisions without making changes. Given the timeline facing lawmakers now, it is likely a straight reauthorization will be granted again.

But some lawmakers, such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are likely to push for substantive changes.

Homeland Security Authorization

House and Senate aides say 2011 could also be the year the first authorization bill for the Homeland Security Department is passed by both chambers.

The department has never operated under an authorization bill since being created in 2003. King said he expects to produce a bill by May at the latest.

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