WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Tuesday closely questioned the Secretary of the Homeland Security Department on the Department’s Fiscal Year 2010 spending priorities.

While praising the Administration’s decision to increase funding in areas such as cyber and border security, the Senators expressed dismay at severe cuts in first responder grants for firefighters and Lieberman questioned essentially flat funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“There is much in President Obama’s proposed 2010 budget for DHS that I find forward looking in ensuring the safety of our homeland, starting with a 6.6 percent increase in net discretionary spending for the Department,” Lieberman said. “In a time of high deficits, when we have to focus on key priorities and tighten our belts, this increase is a testament to the Administration’s commitment to the Department’s critical mission of keeping our homeland safe.

“But I am at a loss to understand why the Administration has proposed cutting critical support for first responders – in the form of Assistance to Firefighters Grants – nearly 70 percent from $565 million to $170 million, and will do all I can to help overturn these cuts.”

Collins said: “As our nation confronts the challenges of terrorism, natural disasters, and emerging threats such as cyber attacks and drug cartel violence, I am disappointed that the Administration’s budget proposal provides only a slight overall increase in homeland security funding. Moreover, with the additional cuts proposed by the Administration for the next four years, the Department of Homeland Security may be hard-pressed to prevent, prepare for, and respond effectively to the threats we face. At a time when budgets are tight, difficult decisions must be made. We cannot, however, underfund our nation’s homeland security.”

Lieberman and Collins praised the Administration’s decision to increase funding for cyber security by $87 million. Information systems in the private and public sectors are attacked every day, Lieberman said, raising to an urgent level the need for stronger cyber defenses against computer attacks and data theft. Lieberman recently introduced legislation to strengthen defense of the electric grid. He and Senator Collins plan to offer more comprehensive legislation later this year to bolster the protection of the nation’s computer networks.

Lieberman also praised the Administration for recognizing the border threat posed by drugs, weapons, cash, and human smuggling. Lieberman said the $135 million increase for the Southwest Border Initiative was a good beginning but that additional funds are needed, particularly to step up the number of southbound inspections to disrupt the flow of illicit guns and cash that the Mexican drug cartels need to wage war against the Mexican government.

Lieberman and Collins persuaded the Senate to pass an amendment last month to its FY 2010 budget resolution increasing money for the Southwest Border Initiative by $550 million. They promised to continue to work for additional funds for border security.

Both Senators noted that an extra $25 million for the Office of Procurement would help reduce frequent cost and schedule overruns in major DHS acquisition programs; both said the Coast Guard’s budget should be increased.

Although the Administration has doubled funding from $210 million to $420 million for grants that help Fire Departments hire new firefighters, Lieberman and Collins vowed to fight the decision to slash funds for the FIRE Grants that are relied upon by Fire Departments for the equipment that allows them to perform their jobs safely and effectively.