Dems, administration trade barbs on first responder funding

For the second day in a row, congressional Democrats blasted the Bush administration Friday for refusing to adequately fund homeland security efforts-in this case, funding for first responders to terrorist attacks.

With members of the International Association of Firefighters flanking them, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called on the Bush administration to a request in an upcoming fiscal 2003 supplemental spending bill for more money for first responders, border patrol, intelligence activities, and better security for nuclear plants, water and transportation facilities.

"The president insists we can afford to spend more than a trillion dollars for yet another round of tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the very wealthy," Daschle said. "But we can't afford to do anything more to protect Americans from terrorism."

Daschle and Pelosi chided the administration in a letter to the president for refusing to sign into law $2.5 billion in extra homeland funds both parties attached to last summer's supplemental bill and opposing Democratic attempts to add another $5 billion in homeland funds to the 2003 omnibus spending bill that passed the House and Senate Thursday night.

Pelosi said that while the omnibus appropriations bill would fund first responders at the president's requested level of $3.5 billion, only $1.2 billion is new money," while the rest is being pulled from existing state and local law enforcement and firefighting grants. That amounts to nearly two-thirds less than new funds promised by the administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the House Appropriations Committee's Democratic staff.

In a separate speech at The George Washington University, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said Congress should add $16 billion more for homeland security to Bush's fiscal 2004 budget, including $7.5 billion more for police, firefighters and other first responders.

Harold Schaitberger, general president of the IAFF, also said the 2004 budget request amounted to little more than a "reshuffling of the chairs on the deck." He also blasted the administration for cutting the request for grant money that goes to fire departments for training, equipment and safety programs by nearly a third, from $750 million to $500 million.

Schaitberger said too much of the first responder money is going to veterinarians, utility workers and others who are not on the front lines of national and local disasters. Specifically, Schaitberger requested $65 million to train firefighters for responding to weapons of mass destruction, another $3 billion annually to add 75,000 new firefighters across the country, and $100 million for protective clothing and breathing gear.

Meanwhile, at a briefing Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said that while he was pleased members of Congress finally approved his department's budget in the omnibus bill, he was frustrated that "they have placed some constraints on the distribution of dollars."

Ridge said only $1.3 billion of the total $3.5 billion allocated for state and local first responders could be used toward developing and implementing their local emergency response plans.

Ridge pointed to President Bush's FY04 budget request of $3.5 billion for first responders and said he hoped that budget would come without such strings and would be passed in a more timely fashion.

"I know they need more money," he said. "The president recognizes they need more money."

Ridge also announced that his department Wednesday will launch its "Ready Campaign," which features ads to tell the public what they need to do to prepare for a terrorist attack. Ridge said such measures were necessary in "the new reality."