DHS May Not See More Money

WASHINGTON (AP) - An influential Senate Republican is admonishing Homeland Security Department officials not to count on an increase in the agency's $32 billion budget.

"I don't think there's going to be more money," Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said Wednesday "In fact, I know there's not going to be more money. I would urge a review of your situation as to how to get the job done better with the money that's there now."

Stevens is the immediate past chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Also Wednesday, two unions representing about 30,000 of the agency's 180,000 employees said they will go to court to block new pay and workrule regulations they say would diminish workers' collective bargaining rights.

The developments came a week before a confirmation hearing on federal appeals court judge Michael Chertoff's nomination to replace Tom Ridge as secretary of the agency he has headed since its creation in 2003.

Stevens' remarks on the agency's new budget followed testimony by a number of homeland security experts who urged departmental restructuring changes or priority shifts.

Three weeks ago, Ridge told reporters he expected DHS to get "some of the highest level of support from within the White House" when the budget blueprint is released in February.

The experts testifying in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs agreed DHS has taken large strides to protect the country since its creation two years ago but described a bevy of inefficiencies plaguing the agency, from unclear policy goals and terror prevention plans to understaffing and shoddy office space.

"We're talking about a nickel on a dollar," said Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations. "That's what we're spending on homeland security."

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security committee, said vital programs to secure U.S. borders, ports and rail systems remain underfunded. Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said lawmakers needed to reach a funding compromise that would ensure DHS has the funding it needs, adding, "I think it's only by the grace of God that we've been spared another attack here at home."

Meanwhile, the department released new employee regulations that replace salaries based on workers' seniority with a merit pay system. The regulations, set to take effect within six months, aim to attract and reward talented employees and give DHS managers broad authority to change workers' shifts and duties without delay.

But the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees said they would file legal action in U.S. District Court to block the regulations as soon as they are made official later this week.

"I think this is going to hurt homeland security in a very significant way," said AFGE president John Gage. "It will not serve as an incentive to employees, but rather will be a morale buster. It will drive away, I believe, the best and brightest - not attract them."