By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Congress has eliminated hundreds of millions of dollars requested by President Bush for 2008 to start building a giant headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security in the District, officials said yesterday.
The removal of the money from a $515.7 billion domestic spending bill was a setback to proponents of the project. One, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), said she was in talks to see if she could come up with funds elsewhere to preserve the plans for the western campus of the St. Elizabeths Hospital grounds in Anacostia.
But a senior federal official knowledgeable about the project said that if the money wasn't restored before a Senate vote on the bill, "the real possibility of making this [headquarters] a reality gets very dim." He spoke on condition of anonymity since the legislation hadn't gotten final approval.
The news about the St. Elizabeths project emerged after the House passed the spending bill late Monday, after a last-minute trimming of billions of dollars to avert a presidential veto. The bill was expected to pass the Senate with added funding for the Iraq war, and be signed by Bush.
The legislation provides hundreds of millions of dollars for the District. It includes the annual federal payment for D.C. courts, almost $224 million, as well as almost $48 million for defender services in family courts, according to a statement from Norton. It makes available $190 million to assist former prison inmates returning home to the city.
It also includes millions for schools, sewers, libraries and a new forensics lab, among other projects.
City leaders were heartened that the bill lifts a 9-year-old ban on using D.C. tax dollars to provide clean needles to drug addicts. The D.C. Health Department has promised to allocate $1 million in city funds for the new program in an effort to reduce the severity of the local AIDS epidemic.
The bill also will establish a quarter with an image representing the District, similar to coins commemorating the 50 states.
The cut in funding for the Homeland Security headquarters was perhaps the biggest surprise in decisions affecting the District.
Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), head of the House appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, said the project was axed in order to reach the president's overall spending cap.
"Since the president proposed cutting or eliminating essential homeland security programs for first-responders, transit and rail security, and port security, we made a decision to rearrange the Homeland Security budget so that these important priorities were not shortchanged," Price said in a statement.
"That meant that some of the president's original budget priorities had to get cut, including the St. Elizabeths project."
He said he hoped the project could be included in next year's budget.
The president had requested a total of about $345 million for the General Services Administration to stabilize the site and begin work on the first major building, a headquarters for the Coast Guard. The GSA owns the western campus of St. Elizabeths. Millions more had been requested in the homeland security budget.
Norton has called the Homeland Security headquarters her "major economic development project for the District," a massive undertaking that could spur growth in Southeast.
But the plan has drawn fire from historic-preservation and urban-planning experts, who say relocating 14,000 employees to the site would overwhelm it.
Norton said yesterday she was in discussions to find other ways to come up with the money.
"I do believe we can work out something between the Congress and the president. Homeland security is his signature issue," she said. She declined to provide details, saying it would be "impolitic" since there was no agreement.
But the GSA indicated that the decision to eliminate the funding would be a serious setback. In a statement, the agency said it was "extremely disappointed" in the cut.
Norton said the good news for the District was that Congress "tried to save every priority we had." But she acknowledged that some projects got trimmed in the latest round of budget negotiations.
The bill provides $33 million for the D.C. tuition-assistance grant program, $2 million less than the president had requested. It also makes available $8 million for a program to reduce sewer overflows into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and $9 million for the D.C. central library, according to the Norton release.