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Senator defeated in bid to secure more rail security funding

(The following article by Chris Strohm for CongressDaily was posted on govexec.com on July 12.)

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., lost his bid Wednesday to boost funding by $1.1 billion for rail security in the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security appropriations bill.

The amendment would have provided $670 million for improvements to rail tunnels in the Northeast corridor; $250 million for general security upgrades for freight rail operators; $65 million for Amtrak, including $25 million to hire 200 new security officers and boost the pay for current officers by 25 percent; and $100 million for research and development.

"You look around the world and bombings and attacks on rail systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated," said Biden, a longtime Amtrak commuter from his home in Delaware who has raised the issue of rail security for years.

But the amendment was defeated on 50-50 vote after Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the extra funding would break the spending cap the Senate established in the budget bill. "That's something we cannot do," he said.

Unlike two amendments to increase spending, which were initially drafted by a senior Democratic senator and approved by an overwhelming majority Tuesday, the Biden amendment does not include offsets to cover the increased costs. Gregg was expected to raise a point of order that would derail the amendment.

Biden blasted the spending cap, saying it was too low to meet needs. "I'll tell you what, folks, we're going to regret this. We are going to regret this," he said.

Gregg cited other funding sources to pay for rail security, saying, for example, that Amtrak receives more than $1 billion in funding that could be put toward security and capital improvements. States and urban areas, he added, also receive homeland security grants that can be used for rail security.

Despite the partisan split over Biden's proposal, the Senate adopted several amendments earlier Wednesday.

An amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., was adopted to establish a $50 million competitive grant program that would allow border communities to use funding to pay for costs incurred in dealing with illegal immigration and smuggling. The program would be for communities within 100 miles of the border, but those further away could participate if Homeland Security designated them as an affected area.

Senators also agreed to several amendments by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., relating to public disclosure and financial accountability. The amendments would require the final Homeland Security appropriations bill to include any language on earmarks or directives to the department; require the department to publicize all its reports to Congress as long as they do not contain national security information; and provide $1 million to the department's chief financial officer to track improper payments.

Another Coburn amendment was agreed to after being altered. As approved, his amendment would decommission the use of the long range navigation system in all areas except Alaska and the continental Northwestern and Northeastern seaboards. Coburn noted that the modern Global Positioning System has rendered obsolete the LORAN system, which was derived from World War II-era technology.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

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