Communications system for air marshals splits Congress

House lawmakers want to amplify air-to-ground communication for federal air marshals, but they must convince their Senate colleagues not to cut $10 million from the program.

In the fiscal 2006 spending measure for the Homeland Security Department, the House included $699 million for the federal air marshal program -- $10,000 more than President Bush requested and $36 million more than provided last year. The funding proposal includes $10 million for an air-to-ground communication system.

"The committee anticipates that this funding level will maintain, or perhaps increase, mission coverage on both domestic and international flights," read the House Appropriations Committee report on the bill. The House passed the measure in May.

The president wants to transfer the $10 million from the air marshals' budget to the department's science and technology division in order to develop the necessary technology for the system.

Congress has funded the initiative over the past few years, and the lawmakers said the department could deploy the communication system next year. House appropriators directed the department to establish a reliable, wireless and secure system that could receive signals while airborne or on the ground, either within the country or abroad.

But House lawmakers must negotiate with their Senate colleagues, who voted to cut $10 million from the request for the air marshal program. The Senate appropriators did not address the communication system in their report.

The Senate passed the spending bill in July. The two chambers will draft a compromise bill this fall and then send it to the president for his signature.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government placed armed air marshals on passenger airplanes to detect and defeat future terrorist attacks against U.S. air carriers. Now the department is exploring the idea of expanding the air marshals' mission to airport perimeter security, conducting surveillance and investigations, according to House appropriators.

Lawmakers expressed concern that the idea would cross into jurisdictions of other law enforcement agencies, so they required the department to submit a report with its fiscal 2007 budget. The report must outline the scope and impact of expanding the marshals' authority.

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