DHS deputy nominee fields lawmakers' questions

Committee could approve Michael Jackson’s nomination this week.

A new unit in the Homeland Security Department will seek to bolster funds and speed research for improved nuclear detection technology at entry ports, Homeland Security Deputy Secretary-designate Michael Jackson said Monday.

Homeland Security's new Domestic Nuclear Detection Office is expected to be at the center of the department's nuclear response strategy, said the nominee, a former deputy transportation secretary who was most recently chief operating officer of AECOM Technology Corp. He cited better detection capabilities as one important aspect of the work.

"This has been one of Secretary [Michael] Chertoff's early briefs, and he is strongly supportive of the effort," Jackson said when Senator Norm Coleman, R-Minn., asked about the program at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget proposal for Homeland Security stipulates creation of the new office and includes $262 million to research and develop better port-of-entry radiation detection devices.

If confirmed, Jackson would replace James Loy as second-in-command at the young department. He told senators Monday that he views the post for which he is nominated as that of a chief operating officer, a "strategic thinker" and "change agent" who is "customer-focused," "action-oriented" and "constructively impatient."

During the confirmation hearing recurrent themes of senators' questioning included the department's much-maligned funding formula for state and local emergency response.

The formula has so far been based heavily on population and per-state minimum payments, but critics from all quarters have called for an approach that would direct more money to locations facing demonstrated threats and vulnerabilities.

Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Monday criticized the department for a "lack of strategic planning" that she said prevented resources from being distributed effectively, adding that Bush's fiscal 2006 proposal would cut emergency response funding to "inadequate" amounts.

A White House budget summary indicates the fiscal 2006 proposal includes $3.6 billion for "state and local first-responder grants and other assistance" but seeks to "restructure" $2.6 billion of that amount to give the department more latitude to target spending to areas where it sees the greatest risks.

Among changes involved in the restructuring is a reduction in the percentage of the overall grant budget that each state receives as a baseline from 0.75 percent to 0.25 percent. The move is intended to free up more funds to be allocated on the basis of risk, Homeland Security Office for Domestic Preparedness spokesman Marc Short said t.

"We would still provide a baseline, but it's a smaller baseline," Short said in a telephone interview.

In addition, the proposal seeks to combine a number of federal programs - protecting ports and public transportation systems, for example - so that funds may more freely be moved among them depending on the latest threat information.

Senior committee Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan called the declining amount of grants "deeply troubling" but praised Homeland Security for moving toward more risk-based spending.

"That is a positive move, certainly an improvement over the formula which has been used to allocate this funding, which has yielded inequitable results," Levin said Monday, expressing hope that legislation enshrining the new approach would be passed this year.

Collins and others in Congress have for nearly two years sought to obtain passage of such legislation. When Congress in December 2004 approved legislation implementing the recommendations of the federal 9/11 commission, proponents of first-response funding reform for a time believed their legislation would be inserted into the 9/11 bill. Ultimately they succeeded only in placing in the plan a "sense of Congress" statement in support of their effort.

"It is the sense of Congress that Congress must pass legislation in the first session of the 109th Congress to reform the system for distributing grants to enhance state and local government prevention of, preparedness for and response to acts of terrorism," reads the bill, which Bush signed into law Dec. 17. The White House cited that language in documents describing its restructuring of state and local Homeland Security grants for fiscal 2006.

The committee could approve Jackson's nomination this week, Collins said.

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