On the way to passing a $31.8-billion Homeland Security spending bill Thursday, Senate Republican leaders beat back a series of attempts -- pressed by senators from states with large urban centers -- to increase money for mass transit protection by as much as $1.4 billion. GOP leaders argued that potentially catastrophic threats such as nuclear, chemical and biological attacks should get higher priorities.
The final bill, which reflected administration spending priorities, passed 96 to 1, reflecting the fact that almost no senator wanted to be on record as opposing a major anti-terrorism bill. The lone holdout was Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff appeared before the House Committee on Homeland Security and was roundly assailed by Democrats who accused him of neglecting mass transit, especially in the wake of the London terrorist bombings, and for failing to insist on greater anti-terrorist efforts from high-risk elements of the private sector, including the chemical and nuclear power industries.
“If you sense an anger, if you sense that we are anxious, I think we’re entitled to feel that way,” Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) told Chertoff. “We don’t have the luxury not to consider what just happened [in London] as a wake-up call and to act now.”
In the Senate’s spending bill, rail and transit safety measures were allotted $100 million, a drop of $50 million from last year. Two major rail security spending amendments, both defeated on largely party-line votes -- would have added just over $1 billion each in additional funds to protect rail, subway and bus systems.
The $31.8 billion total was in line with the spending levels the House approved in May and 7% less than President Bush requested. Among the key provisions: $5.9 billion for Customs and Border Protection, in part to pay for 1,000 new border agents; $3.8 billion for Immigration and Customs Enforcement for 740 new agents and investigators and 2,240 new detention beds to hold illegal aliens in custody; $2.9 billion for state and local first responders; and nearly $1 billion for biological countermeasures.
The Senate bill also eliminated a White House proposal to raise airline passenger fees by $3 a ticket to pay for $1.7 billion worth of security enhancements.
Republicans on the Senate floor and Chertoff, in his testimony before the House Homeland Security committee, argued that completely defending all potential terrorist targets was not possible.
“It’s about balance and choice,” said Chertoff, who appeared before the committee to explain his plans for reorganizing the Homeland Security Department. “We still have to continue to look at those things which have the greatest consequence for the greatest vulnerabilities.
“It’s very easy to isolate and pick out a particular type of infrastructure. But at the end of the day, we have to make sure that what we do looks across the whole range of things.”
House Democrats, in the hearings and in a report detailing their criticisms of Chertoff’s reorganization plan, singled out the administration’s approach to safety standards in the chemical, nuclear and air cargo industries.
Although passengers’ bags are carefully screened, cargo on commercial flights carrying passengers is rarely subjected to the same scrutiny, they pointed out.
In one heated exchange, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) asked whether Chertoff would support 100% inspections of air cargo on commercial flights carrying passengers.
“No,” Chertoff said, but Markey cut him off before he could finish.
As the exchange grew increasingly contentious, Markey said that under the Bush administration, “over and over again the demands of industry have been allowed to trump public safety.”
As one of his staffers held a large poster outlining the threats, Markey said that the government had not required chemical plants to shift to alternative manufacturing processes that would reduce the danger of toxic substances being released in the event of a terrorist attack. He also said nuclear plants had not been required to upgrade security procedures enough.
“We have to be very careful when we decide what kind of system of protection to use,” Chertoff replied, warning that excessive security could strangle the economy. “What I’m committed to doing is a disciplined approach to risk management that considers what is the optimal amount of security, but does it in a way that does not destroy our way of life.”
But the issue of where mass transit security should fall on the list of government priorities dominated the debate on Capitol Hill Thursday.
In an interview with editors of Associated Press, Chertoff said, “The truth of the matter is that a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people.
“When you start to think about your priorities, you’re going to think about not having a catastrophic event first, but it doesn’t mean that we only focus on aviation. We do aviation, we do other things as well, but we scale our response based on the nature of the architecture.”
He also noted that, though aviation security is almost exclusively a federal responsibility, mass transit is also a state and local responsibility.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who backed a substantial boost in federal funding for rail transit security, said that although he supported Chertoff’s nomination as secretary of Homeland Security, he was “aghast” at Chertoff’s remarks.
“These are some of the most appalling things that I have heard coming from any government official in a long, long time,” Schumer said. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, defended Chertoff’s comments. Gregg chastised Democrats for “politicizing” the secretary’s remarks.
“We, as a nation, must decide how we can best invest” to protect against terrorist threats, said Gregg, who opposes exceeding budget limits to give more funding to transit security.
“It’s important not to take an attitude: If we throw money ... we’ll solve that problem. What we need to do is address the risk, the threat,” Gregg said.