Senate chair criticizes Bush's proposed first responder cuts

Calling aspects of the White House budget for the Homeland Security Department "shortsighted," Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Monday she will press for more funding while her committee continues its focus on overseeing homeland security activities.

In an interview with National Journal Group publications, Collins said homeland security will "remain a major focus for the committee," with a particular emphasis on restoring funding for emergency "first responders" to President Bush's proposed budget.

"The president's budget regrettably cuts a billion dollars from the basic Homeland Security grant program, leaving only $700 million," Collins said. "Ultimately, we may be able to cut back on the amount of money that is flowing to state and local government, but now is not the time."

Collins said the nation's first responders still lack proper training, equipment, and communications interoperability to deal with a future terrorist attack. Collins also said the administration's proposed budget cuts funding for security at the nation's seaports, which she characterized as the country's "greatest vulnerability."

Aside from security oversight, Collins said bipartisan postal change "is one of my top priorities for this year." The committee Tuesday was scheduled to hold its fifth hearing on the issue since the President's Commission on the Postal Service released recommendations in August 2003.

Collins said Monday that the most contentious aspect of the reform process continues to be workforce issues. Noting that nearly three-fourths of the postal budget is earmarked for personnel, Collins called for reducing the size of the postal workforce through natural attrition over the next 10 years.

She also said the postal workers compensation system must be reformed. In addition to the workforce issues, however, Collins said her efforts would also streamline the postal rate-setting process and deal with "a host of structural problems," such as an excessive number of mail handling facilities.

Collins said the current Congress must pass related legislation, which she plans to draft with Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del. "If we don't act now, when we have a detailed report on what should we done, we are never going to act," she said.

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