Homeland Security Bill Littered with Attachments

Lawmakers are attaching several controversial measures to a $35 billion Homeland Security spending bill expected to pass in Congress this week. The bill includes more than $1 billion for fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, and would also allow Americans to import a 90-day supply of prescription drugs from Canada.

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The House and Senate are expected to pass a $35 billion Homeland Security spending bill this week. It includes more than a billion dollars for additional fencing along the U.S./Mexico border. It also deals with the future of the Federal Management Agency or FEMA, the importation of drugs from Canada, and chemical plant security.

NPR's Pam Fessler has more.

PAM FESSLER: Lawmakers are always looking for that last train leaving the station - the one bill that has to pass before they head home so they can attach things that might not otherwise be approved. Right now, the train is the Homeland Security spending bill, which congressional leaders hope to complete this week.

Harold Rogers is chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. He spoke to House and Senate negotiators earlier this week.

Representative HAROLD ROGERS (Republican, Kentucky; Chairman, Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee): The recent anniversaries of the 9/11 attacks and the 2005 hurricane disasters keep us focused on why we're here - to protect our citizens and homeland from any threat.

FESSLER: And to that end, the legislation provides new funds for border enforcement, as well as port and transportation security. But the bill goes well beyond money. It would also give FEMA more power, something lawmakers say the agency lacked during Hurricane Katrina.

Among other things, FEMA's director would be able to report directly to the president in a disaster. The bill would also allow Americans to bring a 90-day supply of prescription drugs across the border from Canada. And it includes provisions to tighten security at chemical sites.

Democrats and environmental groups complain that that last measure - the product of lengthy closed-door negotiations - is too weak.

Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): We cannot afford to be so vulnerable.

FESSLER: Democratic Senator Robert Byrd noted that stronger legislation was approved by committees in both Houses, but that it was effectively killed by the opposition of the chemical industry and congressional supporters.

Sen. BYRD: I can say with great confidence that if there ever is an attack on a chemical plant, the American people will simply not understand.

FESSLER: But Senate Subcommittee Chairman Judd Gregg said the bill gives the secretary of Homeland Security the authority to require chemical facilities to tighten security. And he can shut them down if they don't comply.

Senator JUDD GREGG (Republican, New Hampshire): The fact is that this was the best proposal that we could get, and it's - in my opinion - significantly better than nothing, which is where we'd be if we didn't do this proposal.

FESSLER: So on a party-line vote, negotiators rejected an attempt by Senator Byrd to broaden the provisions. Under the bill, the Homeland Security secretary has six months to set security standards for about 3,400 chemical facilities. But opponents say the bill, if approved, remains vague about what those standards should be. Andy Igrejas is with the National Environmental Trust.

Mr. ANDY IGREJAS (National Environmental Trust): I'm worried that what we're going to see is that this is going to be an exchange of paper between the private sector and the government - where the government will lack the ability to really get in and say hey, you need to do x, y and z.

FESSLER: He complains, for example, that there's no ability to require companies to use safer chemicals. But Marty Durbin of the American Chemistry Council says his group's members have already spent about $3 billion to upgrade security and that other facilities will now be required to take similar steps.

Dr. MARTY DURBIN (American Chemistry Council): I think DHS has the authority it needs to put robust set of regulations in place, and we would fully support that.

FESSLER: Still, opponents don't think that's enough. They're happy, at least, that the chemical security provisions would expire in three years, which means Congress has to address the issue again.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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