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Napolitano, Senate Dems buck homeland security budget cuts

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Senate Democrats and the Homeland Security Department are pushing back against budget cuts proposed by House Republicans in the tussle over the federal government's spending.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday that the funding bill approved by the House last month would:

• Cut $560 million from her department's science and technology division, halving its budget.

• Halve to 250 the number of new advanced imaging technology scanners that could be bought this year for airport passenger screening checkpoints.

• Reduce the number of K9 security teams deployed at checkpoints by two-thirds.

• Cut funds for 250 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and interoperable communications on the Mexican border.

House Republicans and other defenders of the cuts said they generally target poor-performing programs and are needed to confront the nation's spiraling fiscal crisis.

The House funding bill, designated HR1, next must be considered in the Senate, where lawmakers have until March 18 to reach agreement to keep the government operating for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Senate Democratic leaders have signaled they intend to oppose many of the cuts in HR1; that sentiment prevailed in the appropriations hearing where Ms. Napolitano testified.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democat, said the cuts would endanger 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.

In an analysis of HR1 produced for Democratic lawmakers, administration officials gave details of other cuts they said the funding bill would impose:

• Cutting E-Verify, the administration's online system that helps employers check the immigration status of new hires, by $34 million — 25 percent of its budget.

• Scaling back and delaying Einstein 3, a new cybersecurity system for U.S. government computer networks.

• Canceling the Integrated Wireless Network, a new interoperable hand-held radio system for federal law enforcement agents.

• Reducing Justice Department spending on information sharing by $100 million.

An HR1 amendment — proposed by Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., New Jersey Democrat — reallocated $560 million from Homeland Security's science and technology division to the SAFER program, which helps fund firefighters' salaries across the country.

Stewart Baker, a senior homeland security official in the George W. Bush administration, called the move "a disaster, in particular because the money is going 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 R-and-D [research and development]," he said.

Mr. Baker said the SAFER money would be "piddled away in overtime payments in a year or two with nothing to show for it once it's gone, instead of providing substantial R-and-D benefits that would have helped strengthen our security for years to come."

Research and development activities in the science and technology division "would basically have to stop for the rest of the year" if the cut is enacted, one Democratic congressional staffer said.

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