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Chertoff defends Bush’s budget proposal

(The Associated Press circulated the following article on February 9.)

WASHINGTON -- Members of the House Homeland Security Committee want to know why the Bush administration plans to cut grants to state and local emergency workers, firefighters, disaster training for hospital workers and upgrades to communication systems.

Although another House panel that questioned him the day before was polite if pointed, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was expected to face a gloves-off barrage of questions Friday from Democrats and Republicans worried about grant cuts, fee increases and poorly managed programs in the department’s 2008 budget request.

With Democrats now in charge of Congress, Thursday’s hearing by the House panel that holds the purse strings of Chertoff’s department served as a warning that lawmakers would be challenging the Bush administration on a long list of Homeland Security programs.

A paper prepared by the Democratic staff of Friday’s panel blasts President Bush’s spending blueprint as falling “drastically short in several critical areas,” including border, port, mass transit, rail, aviation, cyber and critical infrastructure security.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, says the administration’s budget proposal would “decimate funding for key homeland security programs” and leave the nation both vulnerable to another attack and grossly unprepared to respond to natural disasters.

And ranking Republican Peter King, R-N.Y., has decided there is not enough money in the president’s budget to fund homeland security adequately.

But Chertoff on Thursday defended the budget as “sound, simple and ample,” adding that even with an enhanced budget, “we have to exercise fiscal discipline, and there are trade-offs.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, King said that what he sees in the budget request for the Homeland Security Department is “almost token increases.”

King says he thinks Chertoff is doing “the best job he can” and now has a decent management team. But King says the budget calls for cuts in grants to first responders and firefighters that he strongly opposes.

Even more, he thinks the administration’s entire philosophy needs change.

“We’re at war,” he said. “We decide how much we have to spend and then we spend it.” He noted that White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters on Thursday, “You do have to make some choices with the scarce resources available to you.”

King countered: “The resources for Homeland Security should not be scarce. It should not be just another Cabinet department. ... With a $2.9 trillion budget, we should be able to find a few billion more for homeland security. Either we’re at war with Islamic terrorism or we’re not.”

One issue vexing both King and Thompson is a program meant to increase the reliability of communications systems that emergency workers must rely on.

Both lawmakers say a $1 billion fund that the Commerce Department expects to receive from the auction later this year of radio spectrum was never meant to be a substitute for grants to state and local first responders. Instead, they thought, it was intended to be a supplement.

Thompson is also concerned about the budget request for 600 additional detention beds for immigration enforcement. He believes those are not nearly enough if the administration is committed as it has said to increase enforcement against employers who hire illegal aliens.

In a visit to Homeland Security headquarters Thursday, Bush praised the department for, in his view, improving airline safety, cargo inspection, border security and emergency response.

Bush said the formation of the department has been “difficult and complicated,” but he called the agency’s progress substantial.

Friday, February 9, 2007

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