The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and congressional Democrats and have launched an assault on House Republicans' plans for spending cuts this year, saying they would slash vital programs protecting the nation's borders, airports and computer networks.
In testimony before House and Senate appropriators Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano provided details of some of the cuts she said the current-year spending bill the House passed last month would impose on her department:
• Cutting $560 million from the department's Science and Technology Division, halving its budget.
• Halving the number of new Advance Imaging Technology scanners and portable Explosive Trace Detection machines that will be bought this year for airport passenger screening, which will lengthen wait times at checkpoints.
• Reducing by two-thirds the number of K-9 security teams deployed at checkpoints, from 275 to 100.
• Cutting funds for 250 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and interoperable communications on the southern border.
House Republicans quickly contested her claims.
Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, Alabama Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, said the House spending bill (HR1) "fully funds all front-line operations and essential personnel," including the Border Patrol, Coast Guard and ICE agents.
Mr. Aderholt added that DHS officials had assured his staff in technical guidance that HR1 would not lead to cuts in front-line enforcement personnel.
"Our staffs need to get together," Ms. Napolitano said. "There clearly is a strong difference of opinion on what [HR1] does, especially to ICE."
A Republican congressional staffer told The Washington Times there was no evidence that wait times would lengthen at airports, and said DHS "wouldn't have been able to buy all the [scanners] it planned, even if we gave them their whole request."
An analysis provided by Democratic congressional staffers provided details of other cuts they said HR1 would impose:
• Cutting $34 million from E-Verify, the administration's online system that helps employers check the immigration status of new hires - a 25 percent budget reduction.
• Scaling back and delaying Einstein 3, a new cybersecurity system for U.S. government computer networks.
• Cutting by 25 percent the budget for U.S.-CERT, the computer emergency response center that is the public face of the federal response to computer viruses, malicious software and other cyberthreats.
On Wednesday, President Obama signed the latest stopgap funding measure, giving lawmakers from both chambers until March 18 to reach agreement on funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The Senate now must take up the funding bill, but Democratic leaders there have signaled that they intend to oppose many of the cuts in HR1.
Democrats made it clear at both hearings Wednesday that they were girding for a fight over homeland security spending.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, accused Republicans of endangering the nation.
"We face urgent threats to our homeland security. [It] comes from our friends in the House, who want to cut funding for programs … that keep us safe," he said, highlighting grant programs for port security and first responders that bring federal dollars to his state.
But one of the deepest cuts in the Homeland Security budget was inserted by a Democrat during debate over the House bill: An amendment proposed by Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey restored more than $500 million for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants, which help fund firefighters' salaries across the country.
Under House debate rules, any cut items can be restored only by funds from reductions made elsewhere in the budget. Mr. Pascrell's amendment took $560 million from the DHS Science and Technology Division.
"The part of our department that was hit most hard … was Science and Technology," Ms. Napolitano said. "That's where we do research on breathing apparatus for firefighters" and on new checkpoint screening technologies.
Michael Kelly, a member of the Homeland Security and Defense Business Council, said the science and technology cuts would bite deep.
"They will essentially starve any [research and development] efforts that are ongoing or planned for the future," said Mr. Kelly, an executive with intelligence and defense contractor TASC Inc.
He predicted the impact would be especially severe on small businesses, which the Science and Technology Division is supposed to favor in its procurements.
"There is no other agency doing what they are doing … trying to develop cutting-edge solutions to security problems," Mr. Kelly said.
Stewart Baker, who was a senior DHS official in the Bush administration, called the move "a disaster," saying the money will go to members of the firefighters' labor unions.
"It's very strange to me that this new freshman class of tea party lawmakers should decide that the first thing they want to do is write a big, big check to the unions by getting rid of Homeland Security [research and development]," he said.
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