House Democrats Craft Bio-Terrorism Response

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

( - The House Democratic Task Force on Homeland Security says the best response to the threat of bio-terrorism involves federal funding, training, and coordination of first responders at the local level.

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) says the task force addressed bio-terrorism first, because the threat is so new and so urgent.

"Cities, towns, counties, and states on the front line in this fight need the resources to reduce the threat from biological terror," he said.

The group's Bio-terrorism Protection Act of 2001, or "Bio-P" as it is being called, would provide $6.7 billion in taxpayer funding for five major initiatives:

- $3.5 billion for public health infrastructure and response to bio-terrorism.
- $800 million for protecting food and water supplies.
- $870 million to enhance law enforcement capabilities against bio-terrorism.
- $1.1 billion to improve intelligence gathering and coordination capabilities, and,
- $720 million to help the U.S. military better prepare to respond to and assist local communities with bio-terrorism incidents.

Republicans agree on the basic needs that the bill addresses, but are concerned with the amount of money the bill spends and its mandates.

"It's pretty heavy-handed," said Larry Halloran, Republican staff director and counsel for the House subcommittee on national security. "It's kind of old school, not just in terms of throwing money at the problem, but also in terms of telling state and local governments what they must do to get the money."

But Gephardt believes the proposal takes a proper approach. He says it builds the response to bio-terrorism from the "bottom up" rather than taking a cookie-cutter approach designed in Washington.

"Putting the right resources and the right training and the right education into our local communities," he said, "(because) all of politics is local, all of fighting terrorism is local, as well."

Halloran agrees that resources, training, and education are important. But he says the "who" and "how" of meeting those needs will have to be negotiated.

"Those are the main poles of the tent. How high and how far apart they are seems to be the issue," he added. "How much money, and what kinds of strings are attached to it?"

Gephardt says he has discussed the proposal with new Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, but that the two have not discussed the financial aspects of the proposal or the requirements state and local governments must meet to receive funds. Democrats planned to deliver a written version of their plan to Ridge Thursday.

Many Democrats have challenged administration security proposals on the grounds that they gave too much power to law enforcement, without proper checks to protect civil rights. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) believes the Democratic proposal addresses that concern.

She says the legislation gives police "the tools they need to respond effectively to any new threats we may face and, at the same time, protects the precious freedoms and liberties that we enjoy under the U.S. Constitution."

Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the task force, says the past few weeks have shown what Americans can accomplish by working together.

"We know that every American needs to be a part of the fight, part of a pact to protect our homeland," he said. "If we're asking the public to be 'vigilant,' then they need and deserve to be informed in full and given the chance to be a part of a dialogue with the officials who work for them. This bill does that."

Halloran agreed that the bill is a good starting point for negotiations.

"These are primarily the areas in the administration's bill. Food safety, pathogen safety, and state and local health infrastructure are the things (Health and Human Services) Secretary (Tommy) Thompson talked to us about," he said.

Republicans are hopeful that the bill will become more of a response to bio-terrorism, and less of a spending and mandates package, through negotiations with Democrats.

"We're happy to make it a bipartisan bill. We want it to be a bipartisan bill," Gephardt said, "and we think it will be."