By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 16, 2006
The Federal Emergency Management Agency would be expanded within the Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA's chief could obtain direct access to the president in a crisis, under terms of a compromise overhaul of the troubled agency announced last night by congressional negotiators.
Reached one year after Hurricane Katrina triggered a catastrophe on the Gulf Coast and a governmental emergency in Washington, the tentative deal would give the 2,500-worker agency more power to prepare for and respond to future disasters.
But the pact does not clarify whether FEMA would get more money to implement the scores of changes recommended by several post-Katrina reviews.
"It is crucial that we strengthen FEMA and provide it with the resources and tools necessary to help us be better prepared for the next hurricane or disaster. This agreement will move this legislation forward," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in announcing the deal with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).
The compromise now moves to a House-Senate panel that this month is hammering out a must-pass $33 billion Homeland Security spending bill.
The deal proposes increasing FEMA's $2.4 billion budget by 10 percent a year for three years, Collins's spokeswoman said. It also would increase emergency planning grants, now at $185 million, and boost funds for emergency medical and search-and-rescue teams, now $30 million and $20 million, respectively.
But there is no guarantee that budget writers will include the money, and congressional aides said the deal leaves out $3.1 billion to help the nation's 60,000 police and fire agencies communicate in emergencies.
"By refusing to provide desperately needed funds for interoperable communications, House Republicans and the White House have shamefully sold out our nation's first responders in an effort to score political points just weeks before the upcoming election," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), a leading House Democrat involved in the talks.
Responding to flaws highlighted by Katrina, the deal would expand FEMA regional offices, reunite preparedness and response functions severed during the creation of DHS, set qualification requirements for its director, and protect it from department reorganizations by making it semi-independent, like the Coast Guard and Secret Service.