WASHINGTON (AP) - Senators on Wednesday took issue with the Homeland Security Department's budget request for next year, contending it would cut money dramatically for authorities in sparsely populated states who are the first to respond to an emergency.
Secretary Michael Chertoff said the money needed to go instead to areas under the highest threat from potential terrorists. The Bush administration is seeking $34.2 billion for the department for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.
The head of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee indicated the spending plan would be a tough sell on Capitol Hill because of cuts as high as 80 percent in grants for small states.
"That's not just a small drop, that's a leap off the cliff," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Chertoff noted that each state, regardless of its size and population, would receive a minimum of $2.6 million. Of a total $3.5 billion set aside for grants for state, local and other first responders, more than $2 billion would go for risk assessments.
"We have to say, 'Look, the risks we're most concerned about are those which are highest on our analytical scale,"' Chertoff said.
"The message is not that if we don't give a substantial amount of federal funding there's no risk; the message is that in the hierarchy of risks we have to put the resources where the highest risks are," he said.
But the cuts would be too drastic for many states, some senators said. Arkansas, for example, would see its grants shrink from $21.4 million to $5.4 million, said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
"In order for America to be safe, all of America has to be safe," Pryor said. "It's not like we're gold plating things down there."
Yet Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., welcomed the new formula to determine states' shares. "Some states get grant money that they don't really need," Lautenberg said. "Others, like New Jersey, I think, are on the short side."
At the committee hearing, Chertoff also defended plans to raise airline passenger security fees by $3 per ticket. The increase "is basically, as I recall, about the price of a Coke and a newspaper at an airport when you're waiting around," he said.
Also Wednesday, the committee unanimously approved the nomination of Michael Jackson as the department's deputy secretary. A full Senate vote could come next week.