Friday, July 15, 2005

Senate defeats more mass transit security funds

Senate defeats more mass transit security funds

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved $31 billion for airport, border and other domestic security next year after defeating efforts to significantly increase protection for American mass transit systems in the wake of last week's London bombings.

The Senate voted 96-1 for the bill that will fund the Department of Homeland Security, the agency created after the Sept. 11 attacks, for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

The Bush administration has expressed concern that the legislation would cut $257 million from President Bush's request for airport security, resulting in the layoff of about 6,000 screeners.

But Senate appropriators said the United States needs to increase funds for screening and checkpoint technologies while reducing the number of human screeners.

Also, senators from small and rural states defeated a move backed by the White House that would have targeted more security funds on high-risk states, such as New York and California.

The Senate must now reconcile its bill with a House-passed version before sending it to Bush for his signature.

While 53 of the Senate's 100 members backed the move to spend an additional $1.2 billion next year to shore up security for the nation's subways and buses, supporters needed 60 votes to prevail because the additional money would have exceeded the Senate's self-imposed spending caps.

The Senate legislation in its current form would spend $100 million for mass transit security next year.

Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire questioned the effectiveness of such a huge spending increase, saying it "would probably not impact dramatically the security situation." As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Gregg has been working closely with the White House to keep a lid on domestic spending.

The debate over protecting mass transit came during a four-day Senate debate on $30.8 billion for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 for the Department of Homeland Security.

A week ago, bombs exploded in London's subway tunnels and on a city bus, killing at least 52 people and injuring around 700.

"In the wake of the tragic attack in London last week, and attacks in Madrid, Moscow and South Korea, we know all too well that transit systems are targets for terrorists," said Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who pushed for the added money.

Sarbanes and other supporters complained that American mass transit systems, which move an estimated 14 million commuters every weekday, were being left behind as the federal government rushed to make air travel safe. Sarbanes said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has spent $18 billion on aviation security and only $250 million to protect transit systems, "which carry 16 times more passengers daily."

"We've been spending pennies as far as transit security," said Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who led the fight for more mass transit security.

The $1.2 billion would have been spent to install surveillance cameras in subways, put bomb-sniffing dogs in train stations and on railcars, hire more security personnel for all mass transit and install more bomb detection devices.

Gregg repeatedly argued that senators, in doling out security money for next year, had to focus on what some experts say are the biggest threats to domestic security: the possible detonation of a weapon of mass destruction and attackers infiltrating porous American borders.

Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he was "aghast" that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently argued that localities mostly had to bear the brunt of protecting their mass transit systems since hijacked airliners have proven to be a much bigger threat to domestic security.

Schumer said that if Chertoff continued to express such views, "I'm not sure he should continue as secretary."

Senators also defeated a move to add security funds for intercity passenger and freight trains. Even a modest amendment by Gregg to add $100 million in mass transit funding failed as it would have taken some funds from local "first responders," such as police and firefighters.