House lawmaker aims to boost money for grants

Member says he will fight Bush’s decision to eliminate funding for grants to help emergency response groups pay for personnel.

A senior House Republican said he does not believe Congress will pass a fiscal 2007 authorization bill for the Homeland Security Department but vowed to restore proposed budget cuts to grant programs for emergency responders.

House Homeland Security Committee Vice Chairman Curt Weldon, R-Pa., said in an extended interview this week that he would fight a decision by President Bush to eliminate funding for a grant program that helps emergency response groups pay for personnel. Congress provided $110 million for that program in fiscal 2006, as well as $545 million grants to firefighters, more than the $293 million Bush requested for that program in his fiscal 2007 budget.

"My major goal is to protect the funding for the first responders ... and I will guarantee you we'll get the funding back up this year," Weldon said.

Weldon said he does not believe Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine., will do a department authorization bill this year. A spokeswoman for Collins, whose panel has never considered such a measure, said she has not decided. She is focused on completing legislation for port and chemical plant security and implementing recommendations to improve government responses to hurricanes and other disasters.

The House should pass a Homeland Security bill every year, Weldon said. "The reason why the Armed Services Committee has so much credibility is that we always do an authorization bill [for defense] every year," said Weldon, who also is vice chairman of that panel.

Asked about the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Weldon said he is unconvinced it should be removed from Homeland Security, saying it is more important that its director has disaster experience and can report directly to the president in a crisis.

"It's one thing to be an organizer on paper," he said. "It's another thing to be in the middle of a disaster and have people screaming at you, people's lives on the line, and know what to do."

Speaking before Bush on Thursday nominated acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison to permanently head the agency, Weldon praised Paulison for having the right kind of experience.

On other issues, Weldon said Homeland Security can play a critical role in both communicating threat information to state and local governments, and ensuring that those governments can feed information to the national intelligence community.

"The two top challenges for us in terms of homeland security are the intelligence to be able to predict when a disaster is going to occur ... and being able to respond," he said.

The failed attempt by a Dubai-owned company to take over major U.S. port operations exposed tensions between international commerce and homeland security, Weldon noted.

A vocal critic of that deal, Weldon said the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States that approved it should be removed from the Treasury Department and put within Homeland Security.