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Senate bid fails to hike emergency responders funding

Senate Budget chairman says the federal government has spent $2 billion to fix the communication problem among first responders.

The Senate on Wednesday rejected an amendment to the fiscal 2006 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill that would have earmarked $5 billion in government grants to strengthen communications among emergency responders.

The amendment, offered by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., fell 58-40. It needed 60 votes to secure a waiver to budget rules. A similar amendment failed in July.

"I can't imagine we would send troops into battle overseas and the radios didn't work ... We are in the age of technology, Mr. President. There is no excuse for this," she said, referring to communications failures in the Gulf Coast. "It's our responsibility to make sure that the systems that failed do not fail again."

Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., insisted the amendment was not related to Hurricane Katrina. "The breakdown in communications in the Katrina event was not an interoperability event," he said, insisting that damage to the telecom infrastructure along the Gulf Coast and a lack of electricity to recharge portable phones caused most of the problems. He also noted the spending would go to states unaffected by the hurricane. Gregg said the federal government has spent $2 billion to fix the communication problem.

Meanwhile, in the first congressional hearing to examine the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, former California GOP Gov. Pete Wilson said Congress should strengthen governors' emergency powers to waive state and federal regulations.

"Reinforce the governor's emergency powers to set anything aside -- state and federal statute and regulation -- that stands in the way of quick recovery," Wilson told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel.

The committee is moving forward with its investigation despite House and Senate Republican leaders' announcement last week that they would establish a bipartisan, bicameral committee to investigate the rescue and response efforts.

Republicans and Democrats are squabbling over the scope and powers of the panel. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., who criticized the panel for not calling witnesses involved with the relief effort, said any attempt by Bush administration officials to "bypass this committee is unacceptable" and "part of the administration's cover-up."