- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

Congress is likely to restore the cuts in funding for local emergency services that President Bush had proposed in his 2005 budget, despite the pressure to control spending, said Republican lawmakers and congressional aides yesterday.

In all, the budget of the Office of Domestic Preparedness — the “one-stop shop” that now dispenses almost all federal homeland security funds destined for state and local governments and responders — has seen its budget cut by about $800 million or just under 20 percent.

At the same time, more programs for state and local governmentlike grants to boost security at the nation’s ports — have been moved to the office from other parts of the Department of Homeland Security, which means that more demands will have to be met with less money.

Officials say that spending on homeland security-related items in the domestic-preparedness budget is actually up slightly. They add that other changes in the budget are designed to target funds toward areas where the threat of terrorist attacks is greatest, rather than allocating them on the basis of politically popular population-based formulas.

Bill Hoagland, budget director for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said that the pressure to control spending would be less intense for homeland security than for many other areas of government.

Nonetheless, given that the budget already sought an increase of nearly 10 percent over 2004 spending, it was unlikely Congress would boost the overall figure — the so-called top line.

But he said in an election year, members would be looking to their home districts and states where assistance to first responders and other local agencies is politically popular.

Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican and a longtime passionate advocate for firefighters, told UPI that the FIRE grant, which he helped start in 2000, was “the most popular grant program for first responders” because the money goes directly to local fire departments — without passing through tiers of state and local government — because applications are reviewed by other firefighters.

The administration’s request for $500 million — down from the $746 million it received last year — was insufficient, but Congress would use its power to restore the cut, Mr. Weldon said.

“The administration has never requested enough funding for that program. The bureaucrats don’t like it because they can’t control it. But we have the last word,” he said.

The budget requests no funds at all for the SAFER Act, designed to enable cash-strapped local fire departments to increase staffing levels. A report by the Council on Foreign Relations last year found that 80 percent of them were understaffed

“Staffing is the single-most-important issue confronting the nation’s firefighters,” said Kevin O’Connor, of the International Association of Firefighters. He pointed out that almost all other grants available to local responders were for equipment.

“All the shiny new firetrucks, equipment and radios in the world are useless without trained firefighters to operate them,” Mr. Connor said. “We will be working in Congress to make sure the SAFER Act gets funded the way it needs to be.”

Asked where the money might come from, given the pressure to control overall spending levels, Mr. Weldon said, “Yes, there’ll be pressure, but there’ll be give and take, too. We’ll squeeze it out of somewhere. There’s nothing more important than those first responders.”

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