House, Senate have meeting of minds on DHS budget

House and Senate conferees are poised to iron out significant technology issues in the chambers' differing versions of the Homeland Security Department appropriations bill for fiscal 2006 and the Bush administration's proposed budget.

The House and Senate appropriations committees came out with close figures on overall Homeland Security discretionary spending in their draft bills for fiscal 2006. The House bill cleared total discretionary spending of $30.85 billion, while the Senate OK'd $30.8 billion?both about $1.2 billion more than the administration asked for.

Congress scotched one of the administration's most sweeping proposals for DHS reorganization, which would have created a centralized Screening and Coordination Office (SCO) to run programs for detecting hazardous cargo and dangerous individuals entering the country. The White House had asked for $526 million for the SCO, but neither chamber approved money for it.

Instead, the two chambers' appropriations bills leave spending on targeting projects tied to the administrative organizations and programs that use the intelligence and technology needed for the work.

One key component of the mortally wounded SCO, the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology program, likely will do well in the appropriations process. The House cleared $390 million for U.S. Visit and the Senate approved $340, an amount equal to last year's appropriation. The administration requested about $390 million for the program.

The Senate took a harsher view of the department's CIO office than either the House or the administration. While the lower chamber passed the administration request of $340 million for CIO office operations, the Senate pared the total figure to $286.5 million. The CIO office received $275.3 million last year.

The Customs and Border Protection agency's massive Automated Commercial Environment systems upgrade for tariff and cargo process has escaped serious damage in the budget process so far. Both chambers cleared the administration request of $321.7 million. In addition, they agreed to the administration's request to add $8.1 million to an account to support the legacy tariff and border processing system by clearing the administration's $136.3 million request for the for the Automated Commercial System program.

Congress looked kindly on the administration's $53 million request for the MaxHR human-resources system program, breaking it out in a separate line item for the first time and clearing the entire administration request.

Both chambers appeared willing to put more muscle behind DHS' central procurement operation, for which the administration had requested $7.35 million. Both the House and Senate increased that figure to $9 million.

CBP's technology-heavy Automated Targeting Systems program appeared likely to take a small cut. The center received $29.8 million last year. Both the Senate and the House cleared 2006 appropriations of $28.3 million, or about $1.5 million less. CBP's National Targeting Center, a clearinghouse for threat information, got a slight bump up from last year's appropriated amount of $16.1 million to a 2006 appropriation of $16.7 million, equal to the administration's request.

Deep in the appropriations process, Congress increased funding for the little-noticed Atlas/Chimera program, a project to improve connectivity among department systems. The administration requested $40.2 million, an amount the House approved. The Senate added $10 million to the kitty, leaving the two chambers to wrangle over the Senate proposal of $50.2 million.

The Coast Guard, however, may have to direct its staff to look under couch pillows on its cutters for loose change. Last year, the service received $6.4 billion in discretionary funds, and the administration asked for $6.9 billion for 2006 discretionary guard spending. However, the House approved only $6.4 billion and the Senate recommended $6.76 billion, leaving the Coast Guard short of its goal. Much of the reduction came in the administration's $966 million Integrated Deepwater systems program request, which the House reduced to $500 million and the Senate cut to $905.6 million.

Mandatory spending, such as expenditures on Coast Guard pensions, also affects the top line DHS budget figures, as do emergency appropriations, fund transfers and fee revenue. But discretionary spending is the true apples-to-apples comparison of the appropriations amounts.

Wilson S. Dizard III is a senior writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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