The Senate voted unanimously Thursday to bolster security at U.S. borders by pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into more patrols, surveillance flights and sensors to catch illegal immigrants sneaking into the country.
Senators approved the $32.7 billion budget for Homeland Security Department next year by a vote of 100-0. But they rejected proposals to boost funds for cities and states at high risk of terrorism attacks, a sore subject amid a recent spate of terrorism-related arrests and threats targeting metropolitan areas.
With border security and immigration reform a top election-year priority, the Senate also agreed to make digging tunnels under the border a felony but rejected adding another 370 miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. About 75 miles of the border is now fenced. The House has voted to add 700 miles of fencing.
"The fact of the matter is that South America and Mexico itself have become a land bridge for people from around the world seeking to come through our southern border into the United States," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Security gaps at U.S. borders "allow gang members, allow common criminals, allow narco traffickers, and yes, even terrorists to enter our country without our knowing it," Cornyn said.
Senators from states that border Canada also demanded additional surveillance flights and patrol officers along that 4,000-mile stretch.
Noting efforts on the southern border to combat immigration, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said security programs "on the northern border are more to combat terrorism."
The spending plan included a $1 billion increase for security staff and equipment at borders and ports. A third of the cost would be covered through higher immigration fees.
The Senate bill is about $1.7 billion more than President Bush requested and $700 million larger than a bill passed by the House last month. For the second straight year, the Senate joined the House in rejecting Bush's call for $1.3 billion in new taxes on airline tickets to pay for homeland security spending increases.
Democrats were largely unsuccessful in trying to provide more money to first responders and counterterror and disaster relief programs in states and cities. Republicans cited budget restraints. But senators from both parties argued against a plan by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., to shift the bulk of funds to the 14 largest and most vulnerable states.
"Let's put the money where the risk is," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. "That's what this ought to be about - nothing more."
Critics, including Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said some states would only be assured of about $2 million annually under Menendez's plan. That "is simply too low," she said.
Congress would like to finish and send to Bush both the homeland security and military spending bills before the November election.
The Senate's homeland security spending bill also:
- Prohibits law enforcement officials from seizing firearms from law-abiding citizens during a declared state of emergency. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said that guns were taken from thousands of people trying to protect themselves during the chaos of Hurricane Katrina, but Democrats protested the plan as a threat to police trying to maintain order.
- Scraps the Federal Emergency Management Agency and rebuilds it under another name in the wake of widespread criticism to its response to last year's hurricanes. The new agency would remain part of Homeland Security. It would combine emergency preparedness and response missions and could report directly to the president during catastrophes.
- Gives the Homeland Security Department temporary authority to regulate security at chemicals plants and storage facilities. The chemical industry is believed to be a top target of terrorist organizations. Both the House and Senate are considering legislation to make this authority permanent.