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Bush Fails to Sell Congress on Terror Spending Goals

February 22, 2003|Nick Anderson and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In his drive to shift federal law enforcement spending to the fight against terrorism, President Bush has met a formidable opponent.

It's not Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. It's Edward Byrne.

Why would a New York policeman murdered years ago by drug dealers cause this president a headache? Crime is still a problem, and Congress feels the need to balance the war on terrorism with less heralded but ongoing crime-fighting goals.

Congress honored Byrne posthumously in 1988 with a fund in his name to help states combat drug crime. But in the last year, Bush administration officials have called the fund hard to justify in a world altered by the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Bush sought in his 2003 budget to end it -- and a handful of other crime initiatives he inherited -- to free up money for equipment and training to help police, firefighters and other "first responders" prepare for terrorist strikes.

But the spending bill he signed this week left the $500-million Byrne program intact. Also surviving swings of the Bush ax were $400 million for other local law enforcement grants and $200 million for local police salaries and overtime.

These developments underscore the Washington truism that it's far more difficult to end a federal program than to start a new one.

They also show that even when Bush presses to scale back programs for some domestic issues -- such as the war on drugs -- his fellow Republicans in Congress are capable of fighting back. Frequently, they win.

And they show that while Bush is absorbed with the campaign against terrorism, many lawmakers remain equally concerned about persistent troubles with drug-infested neighborhoods, street gangs and police department staffing.

In all, federal aid to local emergency agencies is expected to total $3.5 billion in fiscal 2003, including $1.3 billion for Bush's first-responder initiative. That was $2.2 billion less than the president wanted for his anti-terrorism plan.

In addition, the Republican-led Congress thwarted Bush's proposal to move the Office of Domestic Preparedness -- now responsible for up to $1 billion in funding for local police, fire and rescue personnel -- out of the Justice Department and into the Department of Homeland Security.

Lawmakers resisted the move in part because they feared losing influence over programs vital to their home-state constituencies. Some lawmakers have long put their own stamp on Justice Department funds through the practice of "earmarks" -- tagging dollars to be sent to specific cities and states. Influential law enforcement groups, preferring to stay under the protective umbrella of Justice, also balked at Bush's proposal.

Bush vented his displeasure with such actions, calling them "most troublesome" and "unsatisfactory," in a statement Thursday after signing the spending bill. He vowed to forge ahead with his anti-terrorism agenda despite congressional objections.

A senior House GOP aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration failed to sell lawmakers on its law enforcement ideas. White House officials, the aide said, "spent most of their time doing press conferences and very little time on [Capitol] Hill. We were never convinced."

The debate in Washington over federal priorities is expected to continue in the year ahead and will reverberate across the country.

Police chiefs in California and elsewhere say they are struggling to balance the new mandate to protect citizens from terrorism with their ongoing duty to stop the illegal drug trade, patrol neighborhoods and combat everyday crime.

These strains may grow worse as the nation prepares for a possible U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and guards against terrorist threats.

What's more, most police departments already face tight budgets, or potential cuts, because of the weak economy.

"You can't tell me to put more officers on the street for homeland security and tell me to cut my budget," said Craig Steckler, police chief in the Silicon Valley suburb of Fremont, who has been forced to lay off some of his force because of declining tax revenue.

Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Mark Leap, who oversees special uniformed operations, said his department asked narcotics investigators to help gather intelligence on terrorist activities after the 2001 strikes. Many didn't return to their drug squads for weeks, months or nearly a year.

"Dope dealers didn't stop selling dope while they were gone," Leap said. "That did have a big impact on our ability to control narcotics."

Newport Beach Police Chief Bob McDonnell, head of the California Assn. of Police Chiefs, said all of his peers are feeling the squeeze.

"It comes in different sizes and in different levels, depending on the size of the organization across the state. Clearly, the impacts are there."

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are keenly aware of these concerns, even if the federal programs meant to address them no longer command headlines.

Few lawmakers question the need for more anti-terrorism funding, but many will rise to defend existing law enforcement programs. That was plain when the Senate last month debated the Bush proposal to eliminate Byrne grants.

Ironically, Byrne became a symbol of the war on drugs during the 1988 presidential campaign when the slain police officer's parents gave his badge to Bush's father, who went on to win the White House that year.

Under federal law, each state gets a fixed slice of the Byrne money, and the rest is divvied up according to population. California, the most populous state, was allotted $51 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 and is in line to get a similar amount in the current year.

In January, senator after senator rose to praise the program when Democrats offered an amendment to save it. The Republicans who chafed at the Bush proposal to end it were notable.

*

Anderson reported from Washington, Hanley from Costa Mesa.

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