The House on Thursday approved $42 billion for homeland security appropriations in a freewheeling process that had Democrats and Republicans attaching amendments on everything from banning grants to ACORN to blocking collective bargaining for airport screeners.
The bill contains no earmarks for pet pork projects, and seeks to cut funding by more than $1 billion over last year.
“We are not going to do earmarks,” House Speaker John Boehner said at a press conference before the vote. “We are going to keep our word to the American people.”
The measure passed 231 to 188.
No one was safe from budget cuts, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other executives at the department who lost out on $320 million when Republicans shifted the money to firefighters. That vote carried 333 to 78.
Republicans snatched another $1 million from the secretary’s office to help local governments deport illegal aliens who have broken the law on a 268-151 vote.
“We are dealing with dire times,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R.–NY). “The days of reckless spending have caught up to us and we are going to have to debate cuts, including to Homeland Security.
“If we don’t get our fiscal house in order, not only are we going to jeopardize national security, we are going to go bankrupt,” Reed said.
Democrats tried a similar move, but failed on a vote of 266-154, to reshuffle more than $330 million from border security and fences to the Urban Area Security Grant program.
These homeland security appropriations for fiscal year 2012 fund border operations, airport screeners, FEMA, Secret Service, and the Coast Guard. It also funds prized grants such as those for first responders, which members on both sides of the aisle historically fight to keep the money going to their respective congressional districts.
But there is already $13 billion stuck in the pipeline at FEMA for first responder grants that has yet to be distributed, said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R.-Al.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
“We can’t keep throwing money into a clogged pipeline,” Aderholt said.
The White House opposed some of the spending cuts, which Rep. David Price (D.–N.C.) called “radical.”
And even as Appropriations Committee Republicans tried to scale back grant funding as a deficit saving move, others like Rep. Peter King of New York fought to restore the money.
“The threat level is the highest it’s been since 911, killing Osama bin Laden has only made that worse,” said King, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee. “Don’t take a meat axe to this, we’re talking about human lives,” King said.
“This is, I believe, putting us at risk,” King said of the cuts. “This is an invitation to an attack. We cannot put ourselves in that position.”
Added Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R.–NJ) “they are waiting for us to let down our guard so they can attack us and our neighbors. We will make sure the department is accountable to taxpayers.”
In the end, $320 million was restored to the firefighter grant program.
Democrats called Republicans “disgraceful” for offering an amendment that would prohibit grants to 300 organizations they say are financially linked to ACORN, offered by Rep. Steve King (R.–Iowa).
“As stewards of taxpayer dollars, we should not allow any of these funds appropriated in this bill from going to this corrupt organization or its web of affiliates,” said a Republican briefing paper on the amendment.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D.–Minn.) opposed the measure and called it “ridiculous.”
“ACORN is not eligible for funding from Homeland Security, as far as I know, ACORN is not in the business of homeland security,” Ellison said.
However, Acorn received a $500,000 grant in 2007 for a fire safety program in Louisiana, according to an inspector general report.
The measure passed 251 to 168 to block future grants.
The appropriations measure blocks the transfer of detainees in Guantanamo to U.S. courts, but Democrats and Republicans united to protect funding of new body scanners for airports.
It cut $160 million for construction of a Homeland Security Department headquarters at the former site of St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, D.C., a psychiatric hospital that once housed famed would-be assassin, John Hinkley, Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan.
The measure did increases funding by $850 million for FEMA to respond to natural disasters, like the recent tornados and floods that have devastated the south and mid west.
“It’s nearly impossible to plan for acts of God,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R.–Ky.), Appropriations Committee chairman.
“But over the last few months, Mother Nature has wrecked havoc, and demonstrated the need for (additional) disaster relief funding,” Rogers said.
Added Norman Dicks (D.–Wash.), “when disaster strikes, victims need help and they need help quickly.”
Although Republicans are pursing a separate bill that questions President Barack Obama’s military actions in Libya, they voted down a Democratic amendment that would have prohibited the use of funds from being used in contravention of the War Powers Resolution.
Homeland Security appropriations are the first of 12 spending measures to be passed by the House this year.
Republican appropriators have pledged to allow an open rule process for the first time in four years, which means any number of amendments can be added stretching the debate from hours into days.
Ironically, Democrats were forced to vote against the first open rule because Republicans attached their entire budget proposal inside.
Crying foul, Democrats insisted during a spirited debate that it would cut Medicare spending, although the measure only “deems” the budget passed and does not carry the force in law.
It doesn’t protect the homeland, Democrats said, it terminates old people.