Chertoff criticized over budget

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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday faced a second round of congressional criticism, this time over budget priorities that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say limit other priorities and cut first-responder dollars.

Key leaders say the $42.7 billion budget for fiscal 2007 — a 6 percent increase — is too focused on border and immigration security and nuclear detection at the expense of other security needs.

“While these are homeland security priorities, and rightfully so, those increases are coming at the expense of everything else, resulting in reduced funding for first responders, transit security, research and development, and little new money for essential work of the federal air marshals and the U.S. Secret Service,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.

“The Department of Homeland Security opened its doors in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks — four years later, we appear no-better prepared,” Mr. Rogers said. “I see little balance in this ‘07 appropriations request.”

Mr. Chertoff defended the budget and said “significant” investments already have been made addressing threats, but said new spending, including $50 million to promote preparedness, should address vulnerability.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would see a 10 percent increase of $500 million for additional employees to address shortcomings like those exposed in a congressional investigation of Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Chertoff addressed those findings to a Senate panel Wednesday and at yesterday’s budget hearing.

“When they don’t work well, I need to fix those things,” Mr. Chertoff said. “Some things did work well; the Coast Guard performed magnificently. Some things worked not so well … the FEMA process did not work as well as it should.”

The budget proposes $536 million — a 70 percent increase from 2006 — for the new Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and nearly $10 billion for border and immigration programs.

“There is no doubt that we need to enforce our immigration laws and make sure that terrorists and criminals are not coming into our country,” said Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, Minnesota Democrat and ranking subcommittee member. “But should we be forced to choose immigration enforcement over strengthening all levels of government to prepare and respond to terrorist attacks and disasters?”

“It flies in the face of what we saw with the miserable response to Hurricane Katrina,” Mr. Sabo said. “I think your budget makes this false choice. The federal government has a vital role in both areas, and we shouldn’t shirk our responsibilities in either one.”

Congressional critics questioned why funding for rail inspections was limited to $13.2 million, in light of the terrorist attacks on rail lines in Madrid in 2004 and in London last year.

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