September 28, 2009
by Chris Strohm
Disputes over several issues are holding up the annual Homeland Security spending bill, including funding for border fencing and the construction of a biodefense facility. And with the new fiscal year three days away, Republicans are seizing on the stalled bill to accuse Democrats of putting the nation's security at risk.
House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said on Friday that "significant substantive differences" remain in reconciling the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2010 Homeland Security Appropriations bill.
Until the differences are resolved, appropriators plan to continue funding the department at current levels under a continuing resolution to keep the federal government operating when the new fiscal year begins on Thursday.
One outstanding difference concerns an amendment in the Senate bill that would require the department to build 700 miles of reinforced double-layered physical fencing along the Southwest border, Obey's office said on Monday.
That amendment was added by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and would require the department to complete the fencing by Dec. 31, 2010. But the department and other lawmakers assert that 700 miles of double-layer fencing is unnecessary and prohibitively expensive. The GAO reported this month that one mile of fencing would cost about $6.5 million.
With frustration apparently mounting, House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Harold Rogers, R-Ky., called on Democratic leaders on Monday to wrap up a conference on the bill.
"If there are outstanding issues as the chairman suggests, you appoint conferees and go to conference to work out these tough issues," Rogers said in a statement. "The bill is at a place where a true conference negotiation could resolve these last few outstanding issues out in the open, but we're not sure what the majority is afraid of."
Another holdup involves funding to build the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., Obey's office said.
The House bill would deny a $36.3 million request to construct the facility and would prohibit obligation of any funds until a separate risk assessment of the site is completed by an entity other than the Homeland Security Department.
But the Senate bill would provide construction funds, pending a safety assessment and report from the department.
The spending bill's lack of movement triggered a brusque exchange Friday between Rogers and Obey.
"Instead of actually doing our work and fulfilling the security needs of our nation, we are placing a priority on Congress' own budget, putting Homeland Security spending on ice, taking the next few Mondays and Fridays off and basically waiting around until October until we get further direction from on high," Rogers said on the House floor.
Obey said it is "patently preposterous to suggest that this bill is being delayed in any way."
"Under the rules of the body, we can't bring a conference bill back to this House until we've reached agreement on all of those differences," he said. "If the gentleman wants to resolve those by agreeing with our position on each of them, I would be happy to see them go to conference right now."