A key House Democrat Tuesday said appropriators will give priority to first responder grant programs, all-hazards preparedness and cybersecurity when they mark up the fiscal 2009 Homeland Security Appropriations bill Wednesday.
"I think it's not too hard to predict the kind of emphasis that the bill will contain," House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Price, D-N.C., told the Security Industry Association in a speech. "This is a bill, the hallmark of which has been focusing on first responders, focusing on natural disaster preparedness and relief, and trying to think ahead of the curve in terms of the kinds of protections that we need to put in place. So there are no radical discontinuities between last year's bill and this one."
Price would not discuss any details of spending levels in the bill, saying it is still being put together.
The Bush administration has requested $38 billion in discretionary spending for the department.
Last year, the Democratic-led panel boosted funding for the grant programs above what the administration was requesting. The administration is seeking about $2.2 billion for those programs in fiscal 2009, about $1.5 billion less than Congress allocated for the current fiscal year.
"It's especially important as we pull this department together and respond to new threats ... not to let deteriorate the conventional capabilities that we had going into this new era," Price said. "It shouldn't be a trade off. It shouldn't be swapping out one set of priorities and capabilities for another. We need to prepare for all hazards. That's really the challenge for this department."
In one area, though, Price said the bill will make cybersecurity a high priority. The department has requested nearly $300 million for its role in the administration's cybersecurity initiative.
Price said his panel's legislation is on pace to be the first spending bill to move through the House, which he said could be problematic.
"To the extent that there are controversies simmering or to the extent there are people who want to create controversies, the first bill out of the block is certainly vulnerable to that kind of political gamesmanship," he said.
He noted that the fiscal 2008 Homeland Security spending bill was held hostage on the House floor last summer over an unrelated but highly partisan dispute over the disclosure of earmarks. The dispute triggered 29 recorded votes and nine parliamentary motions to adjourn.
Price said he believes most spending bills will make it through the House before the August recess but then face "formidable" obstacles in the Senate and with the White House. "The process is going to be rather messy in the end," he said.
"My guess is that although these bills will make it through the House I think you will see in the fall a series of continuing resolutions which keep the funding going at last year's level on in to the new fiscal year," he said. More likely than not, he said, Congress will have to pass an omnibus appropriations bill before a new administration comes into office. "I think it's extremely likely that's the kind of process you will see this year," he said.