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'First Responders' Lose Out in Spending Bill

Bush signs law but says it shortchanges public safety agencies of promised funding.

February 21, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — To show solidarity with police and firefighters after the 2001 terrorist strikes, President Bush and his aides repeatedly pledged a financial boost for local public safety agencies to help address future attacks.

But a government spending bill Bush signed into law Thursday falls short of what administration officials had promised.

Originally, the president proposed $3.5 billion in federal aid this year to help "first responders" -- police, fire and medical rescue personnel -- gear up for terrorist threats with new equipment and training.

The initiative sought to fix problems discovered after the Sept. 11 attacks, such as faulty communications between New York City police and fire officials during the evacuation of the World Trade Center towers.

Yet Republican-drafted language provided only about $1.3 billion for first responders, according to White House officials.

The money is part of a $397.4-billion bill, approved by Congress last week, to fund most government agencies through September.

The rollback of Bush's request has led to an unusual spectacle: A GOP White House joined with Democrats in criticizing a provision pushed by congressional Republicans.

Bush, in signing the bill, criticized what he called a $2.2-billion shortfall for homeland security.

"Funds that should have been made available to the Department of Homeland Security are being diverted to programs unrelated to higher-priority terrorism preparedness and prevention efforts," Bush said in a statement after signing the bill. "My administration will use all the tools at its disposal to ensure that as much of this funding as possible is directed toward terrorism preparedness and prevention."

Democrats blamed the administration for failing to win full approval of a program it had once declared a top priority.

"We are asking American families to prepare for a chemical or biological attack, but local police and firefighters are being denied the resources needed to purchase protective suits and other vital equipment," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said last week.

Republican congressional officials sought to steer clear of the controversy. Spokesmen for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Other congressional sources said the new law includes a total of $3.5 billion for local emergency agencies. But much of the other $2.2 billion will support crime-fighting and firefighting programs that were underway long before the Sept. 11 attacks and are only loosely related to the anti-terrorism campaign.

Federal aid for community-oriented policing, for instance, remains a significant part of the budget.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers were loath to cut such programs, popular in many states, although Bush sought to trim them substantially to make room for his "first-responder" anti-terrorism initiative.

In Bush's 2003 budget proposal, administration officials wrote, "We ask much from them, and they always deliver. Now it's time to come through for them."

Many city officials, who have waited longer than a year for the aid, say Washington is shortchanging security.

"We have spent tens of millions of dollars out of our general fund to beef up security in this city," said Matt Middlebrook, deputy mayor for communications in Los Angeles. "But there are still many pressing needs. We were led to believe the resources would be forthcoming from the federal government, and they just haven't."

It was not immediately clear how much Los Angeles would receive from the bill Bush signed.

Others echoed his criticism.

"The nation's mayors are extremely disappointed," Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. "Our police officers, our firefighters ... our residents and our businesses demand more and they deserve better."

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