Democrat senators promise billions for rail security, first responders

The lack of spending for first responders and transit and port security is a “clear and present danger” to homeland security, eight Democratic senators announced today.

To reduce that danger, the lawmakers said they would sponsor amendments to add billions of dollars to the fiscal 2006 budget for the Homeland Security Department.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) promised $5 billion a year for the next three years to pay for communication equipment for first responders. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said he introduced an amendment on July 11 to keep first responder grant programs from getting cut by $587 million compared to FY2005.

“We shouldn’t abandon our first responders,” Akaka said.

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), who called the terrorist bombing of trains in Madrid in 2003 and last week in London a wake-up call, said he would be introducing a bill with Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.V.) that would provide $1.1 billion for rail security.

The sum would include $64 million to Amtrak, $600 million to repair aging tunnels and $240 million to fix the trains and tracks, Biden said.

Joining Stabenow, Akaka and Biden were Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.).

The Democratic senators said that since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush Administration and the Republican majority in Congress has cut vital funding to first responders and transit and port security. Those cuts leave the country and millions of people vulnerable to catastrophic – and avoidable – attacks, they said.

The Bush administration has provided no money for rail security in its fiscal 2006 DHS budget proposal, Lieberman said. The Senate has cut rail security funds by $50 million, to $100 million, compared to fiscal 2005, he said.

The administration lacks a comprehensive plan for homeland security and has withheld millions of dollars of homeland security grants, Clinton said. “We’ve basically been doing homeland security on an ad hoc basis since September 11,” she said.

Kerry said he would sponsor an amendment with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) to get the DHS’ inspector general to force the department to tell Congress within 90 days where the country is vulnerable and what DHS needs to protect it.

Congress has been aware since at least December 2001 of promising new security technologies for rail and transit systems, including facial recognition devices and chemical sensors, Lieberman said.

Three and a half years later, “the train has still not left the station when it comes to genuine transit security,” Lieberman said.

That is a catastrophic oversight because millions of Americans live near chemical plants and rail lines that carry trains with toxic chemical cargo, Corzine said. An explosion at any of those sites could kill hundreds of thousands of people, he said.

First responders could be fully funded with the money currently going toward President Bush’s tax cut to Americans earning $1 million a year and up, Stabenow said.

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