Friday, July 15, 2005

The Senate voted yesterday against fulfilling its pledge from last year to hire 2,000 more Border Patrol agents and fund 8,000 new detention beds for illegal aliens in fiscal 2006, as some potential presidential candidates weighed in on border security and illegal immigration.

The intelligence overhaul bill that Congress passed and President Bush signed into law in December called for 2,000 new agents and 8,000 new detention beds every year for the next five years in order to meet a threat posed by illegal aliens.

Yesterday’s votes were on amendments to the Department of Homeland Security spending bill, which funds only 1,000 more agents and 2,240 more detention beds in fiscal 2006.

Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, had called for another 1,000 agents, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, called for 5,760 more beds in order to meet the goals set by last year’s bill, with both increases being paid for by reducing grants to state and local governments.

“Anybody who comes into the United States of America across our southern border today and is from a country other than Mexico, 95 percent chance they will continue their journey to wherever they want to go,” Mr. McCain said. “We don’t have enough detention facilities. We don’t have enough beds.”

But Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said the amendments would sap funds from local law enforcement.

“That’s the problem here. It’s not in strengthening the borders. It’s in taking away money from the people every day who defend us and, since 9/11, have new duties,” he said.

Both amendments failed — Mr. Ensign’s by a 60-38 vote, and Mr. McCain’s 56-42. Later in the evening, the overall Homeland Security bill passed 96-1, with Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, voting against it.

The Senate debate came as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff testified to both chambers of Congress that better homeland security requires a broad immigration policy change.

Meanwhile, potential presidential candidates weighed in on yesterday’s amendments and immigration policy, with Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, voting for both amendments.

“Immigrants have enhanced our history, and they will enhance our future, but we must make sure they come to America legally,” Mr. Frist said. “It’s a matter of security in a time of war. It’s also a matter of morality for a caring nation and a nation of laws.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, who had made a splash recently with comments about cracking down on illegal immigration, voted against both amendments, as did Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic nominee, and Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who has said he plans to run.

Mrs. Clinton’s office didn’t return a call for comment, but other prominent Democrats who are considered presidential candidates said they didn’t want to vote for cuts in first-responder grants to localities.

“Homeland security isn’t served when we steal from firefighters, police officers and other first responders to hire Border Patrol agents,” said David Wade, a spokesman for Mr. Kerry. “If the Republicans who run Congress had drafted a bill that actually meets our needs, none of these votes would be necessary.”

Norm Kurz, a spokesman for Mr. Biden, said the Delaware senator introduced his own bill earlier this year calling for an increase in agents and voted for the intelligence bill last year.

“He just doesn’t support doing these things at the expense of police, fire and EMTs,” Mr. Kurz said.

Mr. Kurz said Mr. Biden’s bill called for 1,500 agents, although the text only shows 800 agents and 300 investigators.

Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, and Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, voted against the Border Patrol increase but for the detention bed increase.

Mr. Bayh’s spokesman, Dan Pfeiffer, said the Homeland Security Department has said it can only train 1,200 to 1,500 agents a year right now anyway. He said Mr. Bayh voted for the detention beds because 90 percent of aliens who aren’t detained never show up at their deportation hearings.

Robert Traynham, a spokesman for Mr. Santorum, agreed, saying the detention beds money could be spent this year.

“The senator is for border security, but he would like for us to spend it in a responsible and approriate way,” Mr. Traynham said.

Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado was the only Democrat to vote for both amendments.

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