DHS grants bill could be bipartisan

Democrats and Republicans are talking about collaborating on House legislation to streamline homeland security funding for local first responders.

House Select Committee on Homeland Security

House Republicans and Democrats on the Select Committee on Homeland Security are talking about collaborating on legislation meant to streamline the homeland security funding process for first responders.

A committee spokeswoman declined to say whether two separate bills — introduced by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), who chairs the committee, and ranking minority member Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas) — would be merged. "All I can say is that Chairman Cox and Ranking Member Turner are collaborating on the legislation," she said.

But a Democratic staffer said it's likely that negotiations on combining the bills will begin this week, and a new one will be reintroduced within two weeks. Cox is committed to getting something out, the staffer said.

Both bills are designed to address problems in applying and dispersing such funds to state, local and tribal police, fire and emergency medical workers. At a recent hearing, homeland security experts and government officials largely responded positively to the proposals as steps in the right direction.

Cox's bill — H.R. 3266, or the Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act — would essentially reduce a 12-step grant process to two steps. It would award grants to states and regions based on vulnerability threats to an area, not on a population. H.R. 3266 would provide money for first responders to buy or upgrade existing equipment and pay for emergency preparedness and prevention training. The Cox measure would require recipients to pass 80 percent to locals 45 days after receipt.

The Republican bill would create an advisory council to advise Homeland Security officials on whether federal standards are needed for particular first responder equipment or training. It proposes to modify the color-coded threat advisory system so warnings can be issued in particular geographic locations based on intelligence.

Cox's bill only affects homeland security grant programs established after Sept. 11, 2001, and administered by the Homeland Security Department's Office of State and Local Coordination.

Like the Republican-sponsored legislation, Turner's bill — H.R. 3158, or the Preparing America to Respond Effectively Act of 2003 — calls for reforming the color-coded threat advisory system and establishing a task force on creating national standards so state and local governments can determine their needs.

H.R. 3158 also would require DHS officials to ensure first responder equipment and training standards are developed and equipment is interoperable. It would authorize $20 million to provide every state and major metropolitan area immediately capability for radio communications interoperability using commercial off-the-shelf technology for the different agencies, according to the staffer.

Other provisions that were not included in Cox's bill permit state and local governments to apply for overtime expenses related to homeland security and funding for personnel, the staffer said.

Turner's bill also supports security clearances for state and local law enforcement officials to receive and use classified intelligence data and stresses the importance of providing training and education to public volunteers, private sector companies, and public elementary and secondary schools to prepare and respond to emergencies.

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