House passes $45B homeland security bill boosting spending above current levels

WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday passed a $45 billion measure boosting the Homeland Security Department’s budget by about 2 per cent above spending levels imposed by an ongoing round of automatic budgets cuts.

The 245-182 vote sent the measure to the Senate, which was likely to unveil a modestly more generous version later this month.

The increases in the bill come as Republicans controlling the chamber are forcing deep cuts in the operating budgets of domestic agencies like Housing and Urban Development, Education, Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.

President Barack Obama opposes the overall GOP plan, which cuts the overall “cap” on discretionary appropriations passed by Congress each year more than $90 billion below the level called for in a hard-fought budget pact approved two years ago.

The measure boosts funding for Border Patrol agents and restores cuts sought by Obama to a popular program that gives first responder grants to local governments. The bill funds a variety of homeland security functions, including the Transportation Security Administration, the Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, immigration enforcement, and disaster prevention and recovery.

Lawmakers took ample opportunity during floor debate to try to beef up favoured programs, showing the popularity of such security programs in a post 9-11 world. The House adopted amendments to boost cellphone service along the U.S.-Mexico border, purchase additional screening equipment for smaller rural airports and restore Obama administration cuts to a program that trains airline pilots in the safe use of firearms.

Lawmakers also voted 281-146 to block for one year the implementation of new risk-based federal flood insurance premiums required under a 2012 law overhauling the much-criticized program. Supporters of the delay, including Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is botching implementation of the new reforms and is inappropriately socking homeowners with dramatically higher premiums while relying on faulty flood maps. Opponents said before the recent overhaul that many homeowners paid unfairly low premiums and that the FEMA flood insurance program required repeated taxpayer bailouts.

The White House has promised to veto the measure because it’s part of a broader GOP strategy that embraces deep spending cuts and shifts scarce resources from domestic programs to the Pentagon.

Democrats had been poised to support the bill but mostly withheld support after Republicans muscled through an amendment that would block the administration’s policy to end deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the country illegally who were brought to the United States as children.

The House vote came as Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, accused the White House of manufacturing a looming crisis when the 2013 budget year ends on Sept. 30. Boehner said that the White House’s threats to veto any spending bill that implements the GOP’s fiscally frugal budget is “reckless” and could lead to a government shutdown this fall.

The homeland security measure is the second of the 12 annual spending bills setting the day-to-day operating budgets of federal agencies to pass the House.

GOP leaders are employing a strategy in which the more generous bills — at levels close to those requested by Obama in his April budget — are advancing first. Bills with sweeping cuts to domestic programs and foreign aid won’t come until later, though Democrats are skeptical GOP leaders will force their rank and file to vote for cuts to popular programs like education, community development grants, transportation and federal law enforcement.

Democrats controlling the Senate, meanwhile, are set to begin revealing significantly more generous bills later this month that, on average, would permit spending almost 10 per cent higher than the GOP measures. The Republican bills are drafted to meet a budget “cap” forced upon Congress by its failure to find alternative deficits cuts to turn off across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

Democrats and the White House support higher spending levels called for in a 2011 deficit and debt deal and want a budget agreement to replace sequestration.