Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Senate voted yesterday to provide funds for 2,000 new Border Patrol agents in next year’s budget as called for in the intelligence overhaul bill, going against President Bush’s request for 210 agents.

The amendment to the budget passed by unanimous consent and indicates a willingness to challenge Mr. Bush on immigration security. Although the amendment does not bind appropriators, who will produce the final spending bills, senators now have taken a public position on the matter.

“Unfortunately, the president’s budget this year only provides funding for 210 agents. This amendment allows Congress to fulfill its commitment,” said Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, who sponsored the amendment with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican.

“Our Border Patrol agents are critical in protecting not only our borders from illegal immigration, but our homeland from terrorism,” Mrs. Hutchison said.

The amendment pays for the increases by reducing the foreign operations section of the budget by $352 million.

Last year’s intelligence bill sought an additional 10,000 Border Patrol agents over five years. It also called for 8,000 new detention beds and 800 interior investigators. Mr. Bush included funding for 1,920 beds and 143 investigators.

The border-security funding issue has given Republicans and Democrats a rare moment of unity on the budget and on immigration issues.

In hearings in the House and Senate, the president has been criticized by members of both parties for not living up to the intelligence overhaul bill he signed just three months ago.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said the amendment is part of Congress’ attempt to show it is serious about border security.

“What this does is it reinforces our commitment to border security,” Mr. Cornyn said. “In a post-9/11 world, we simply have to insist that the federal government live up to its responsibilities along the border, so that we can secure our border from those who want to come here to harm us, but at the same time leave the border accessible to those who want to engage in mutually beneficial commercial activities.”

The administration has said the 210 agents would be enough to protect the country.

“Yes — given the right combination of agents and technology, if we work smarter and do a better job,” said Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees the Border Patrol.

Mr. Bonner told a Senate appropriations subcommittee that CBP is developing a “comprehensive and unified system of electronic surveillance,” which will be critical to the Border Patrol’s ability to increase apprehensions and establish greater control of the border.

In other budget action yesterday, the Senate by unanimous consent passed an amendment that says it thinks funding should be increased for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which reimburses states for the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants.

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