Wednesday, June 06, 2007

House panel votes to boost domestic security

House panel votes to boost domestic security
By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States would spend more to combat illegal immigration and prepare for terrorist and weather-related disasters under legislation approved on Tuesday by a House of Representatives panel that ignores a White House veto threat.

The Appropriations Committee sent to the full House a $36.3 billion domestic security bill for fiscal 2008, which starts October 1. This year, the U.S. is spending $33.7 billion.

In approving the bill, the Democratic-controlled panel ignored White House veto threats against any spending bill moving through Congress that exceeds President George W. Bush's request. This bill would breech that level by about $2.1 billion.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, said the added money represented "a modest change in priorities that will help meet some of the crucial needs" of the country.

The legislation offers a glimpse at how Democrats want to rearrange government spending since taking control of Congress in January.

Since the September 11 attacks, Democrats often have accused Bush and Republicans in Congress of not increasing spending enough to secure the U.S. against a chemical weapons attack at a port, a bombing of a mass transit system or for natural disaster protection and cleanup.

As a result, the legislation would spend about $50 million more for customs and border protection than Bush sought and $2 billion more than his February request for security preparedness and disaster relief.

Funding would continue for construction of a controversial border fence in the southwest at the $1 billion level Bush requested. But the Department of Homeland Security would have to justify how each segment of the fence would be the most effective way to secure parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Republican Rep. Harold Ford of Kentucky complained the restrictions "can potentially impede installation of critical border security systems."

The bill would prohibit the federal government from preempting stricter state and local government rules on chemical security. Lawmakers from states with large concentrations of chemical plants, such as New Jersey, have been clamoring for better protections against attack.

The bill also tries to ensure that illegal immigrants convicted of crimes are deported upon release from prison. The legislation attempts to improve communications between federal authorities and state prisons.

In a May 11 letter, White House budget chief Rob Portman warned he would "recommend the president veto any appropriations request that exceeds his request."

Portman reminded lawmakers Bush has asked for a maximum of $933 billion in spending next year on all "discretionary" programs, which do not include payment of retirement benefits or medical care for the poor and elderly. Congressional Democrats want to add about $20 billion to that tab.