Friday, November 10, 2006

Democrats will look again at the legislation mandating 698 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and might seek to scrap the plan altogether when they take control of Congress next year.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, told reporters this week that he expected to “revisit” the issue when he becomes chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee in the 110th Congress.

Mr. Thompson said the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) new border enforcement program, known as the Secure Border Initiative or SBI Net — which includes monitors, cameras and other integrated surveillance systems — is a viable alternative to fencing.

“We might do away with it, or look at [integrating it into] SBI Net,” he said. “A virtual fence rather than a real one.”

President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have voiced similar concerns about building the fence.

DHS spokesman Russ Knocke told United Press International that in remote border areas, “virtual fencing … is more advantageous,” whereas “traditional fencing has a core role in our border security strategy … especially in urban areas.”

“We’re optimistic that working with Congress we’ll get the flexibility to integrate traditional fencing into a seamless, high-tech border security system,” Mr. Knocke said.

Mr. Thompson also pledged more aggressive oversight of the department, saying that improving its responsiveness to congressional requests for information and reports would be at the “top of my agenda.”

He said his committee would seek to boost funding for rail and mass transit; strengthen security regulations for chemical plants and container cargo; and implement what he said were a number of recommendations from the September 11 commission that have yet to be addressed.

Mr. Thompson pledged to pass an authorization bill for the department. The committee has approved an authorization bill the past three years, but the legislation hasn’t passed the full Senate, which some attribute to turf conflicts with other committees.

Mr. Thompson acknowledged that “there will still be some split jurisdiction,” but maintained that Democrats would be in a better position to work out turf issues. “We can make it work,” he said.

He pledged to demand answers from Mr. Chertoff on what he said was an unacceptable level of vacancies in the department’s senior ranks.

“The secretary needs to come clean with the committee and tell us why he can’t fill these positions,” Mr. Thompson said, adding that Mr. Chertoff would need to come up with ideas to address the situation, “or we will have to provide some ideas for him.”

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