Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Bush administration sent a “hollow” budget to Capitol Hill that does not fulfill its funding commitment to add 1,500 law-enforcement officers to guard the borders against illegal aliens, key Senate appropriators said yesterday.

“This is a situation of showing a proposal and then hiding the funds, and so we end up with a budget that we’ve got a $1.6 billion hole in,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.

Facing off against Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff during a budget hearing yesterday, Mr. Gregg said the funding priorities of the Bush administration treat border protection like “a stepchild of national defense.”

“I can’t think of anything more significant to national defense than protecting our border and making sure that our homeland is secure, and yet the Department of Homeland Security is being starved for funds in crucial areas,” Mr. Gregg said.

“It’s a hollow budget and I can’t understand it because I’ve watched the press conferences where the administration has said it’s committed to border security and domestic defense, and yet this budget isn’t going to get there,” Mr. Gregg said.

Money needed to hire 1,500 more border agents and supply additional beds to house illegal aliens awaiting deportation would come from the administration’s proposal to double fees paid by commercial airline passengers from $2.50 per airport stop to $5. The same proposal to increase passenger fees was killed last year by Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican.

“The increase in funding is tied directly to the fee increase, and they know that is a non-starter,” Mr. Gregg said. “Ted Stevens says it’s a non-starter and proved it last year, yet the administration sends up [this] budget.”

Mr. Chertoff said that finding the $1.6 billion needed was a “challenge” and called the fee increase a “fair price.”

“I view this increase as extremely modest,” consistent with “the price of a soda pop and newspaper at the airport,” Mr. Chertoff said.

He said the administration’s new policy against “catch and release” for illegal border crossers who are not native Mexicans would reduce the need for detention beds. “It’s virtually impossible to send back all illegal aliens,” Mr. Chertoff said.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and ranking committee member, said the administration has stonewalled specific subcommittee requests for increased funding for the Coast Guard and Border Patrol.

“The Department of Homeland Security has become a department of unfulfilled promises. This must be rectified,” Mr. Byrd said.

Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, said, “It’s been very hard to get the administration to put money behind their talk on homeland security.”

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