Senate bill would boost DHS spending but stall border card plan

The Homeland Security Department appropriations bill the Senate approved yesterday would delay a pending requirement that U.S. citizens returning from Western Hemisphere countries such as Mexico, Canada and the those in the Caribbean present secure identification, such as the new border-crossing card the administration is developing.

The Senate's version of the fiscal 2007 DHS spending bill includes $32.8 billion in discretionary spending, which is $1.5 billion more than in 2006, excluding emergency supplemental appropriations. The floor vote was unanimous.

The House passed its version of the DHS spending bill on June 6.

The Senate appropriations panel provided a summary of the DHS spending draft that highlighted several technology-laced programs the Senate seeks to pump up, generally in line with decisions made by the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee's recommendations.

However, the Senate approved two floor amendments sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). One would add $648 million for port security assessments, inspectors, equipment, aircraft, ships, and grants, according to the appropriations panel summary. The other Byrd amendment would provide for $350 million for border infrastructure projects and programs, to be funded by increased immigration fees paid by foreigners.

The appropriations bill would delay the requirement that citizens present passports or People Access Security Services smart cards under a program called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative for 17 months, until June 1, 2009, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a press announcement.

Current law and practice allows U.S. citizens to re-enter the country without a secure identification documents, and, in some cases, with no identification whatsoever.

The Senate approved a similar amendment in May as part of pending immigration legislation. The immigration reform bill's future now has been cast into doubt by conflicts over other issues, such as whether and how to change the immigration status of millions of illegal aliens. So the delay amendment's sponsors, Leahy and Ted Stevens (R-Ak.), inserted it in the must-pass DHS spending bill to improve their proposal's prospects for enactment.

The bills PASS card provision requires the Homeland Security and State departments to certify to Congress that the cards meet several standards before the program begins.

The House version of the DHS spending bill does not include the PASS card provisions or the 17-month delay in the requirement. House and Senate negotiators will resolve the difference in a conference committee.

Leahy has charged that the lack of coordination on the PASS card between DHS and State as well as between the White House and Ottawa spells trouble.

'This has been shaping up as a bureaucratic nightmare that could clog our borders while making us even less secure,' Leahy said in the statement. 'We need to prod these agencies to come to grips with these problems and fix them beforehand, not afterward.'

The Leahy-Stevens amendment would, according to the statement, require the two departments to certify several aspects of the PASS card program:

  • Ensure that the technology for any passport card meets certain security standards'and that DHS and State agree on that technology

  • Share the technology with the governments of Canada and Mexico

  • Justify the fee set for the passport card

  • Develop an alternative procedure for groups of children traveling across the border under adult supervision with parental consent

  • Install all necessary technological infrastructure at the ports of entry to process the cards and train U.S. agents at the border crossings in all aspects of the new technology

  • Make the passport card available for international land and sea travel between the United States and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda

  • Establish a unified implementation date for all sea and land borders.

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