Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and two leaders of New Hampshire firefighters Thursday urged Senate Republicans to vote on a “clean” Department of Homeland Security funding bill and to stop “playing politics” with first responders and public safety.
Funding for the important department is set to expire on Feb. 27 as a bill to spend $40 billion to continue its operations through the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year is bogged down in a partisan battle on Capitol Hill.
Senate Republicans have been trying to push to a full debate a bill already passed by the GOP-led House that would tie the funding for the department to overturning President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Those executive orders provide legal protections to as many as 5 million immigrants, including children, who are in the country illegally. Sixty votes are needed for the bill to proceed, but Senate Democrats have twice this week blocked the move, calling for a vote on a clean homeland security bill, without the House-passed immigration provisions.
Shaheen was joined by David Lang, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, and Chief Kenneth Erickson of the Laconia Fire Department on a conference call with reporters. She said failure to fund the agency after Feb. 27 “could be disastrous for our local first responders, who are on the front lines of dealing with this nation’s safety.”
Shaheen said New Hampshire has received more than $7 million from homeland security grant programs over the past two years that has allowed training for 3,800 first responders. She said 41 other grant awards have totaled $6.6 million for first responders. And an additional $6 million has been received from the department for upgrading radios for police, providing about nearly 300 police officers with “live action training” and equipping the State Police and Nashua Police bomb squads.
“These will be halted or delayed if Congress can’t pass a clean bill for the remainder of the 2015 fiscal year,” Shaheen said. She said that in December, House and Senate leaders “agreed to support the Department of Homeland Security.”
“The bill was funded only in the short term because they were angry about the President’s actions around immigration,” Shaheen said. “That’s why we’re here.”
She noted that a lack of DHS funding would have a “dramatic effect on first responders” and other responsibilities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of the homeland security department.
“This is legislation that we had agreement on,” Shaheen said. “We should put ideological differences aside and get the funding done and then debate the concerns we’ve heard from some people about ideological issues. But now is the time to fund the Department of Homeland Security.”
Republicans countered after the conference call that it is Shaheen and the Democrats who are holding up DHS funding.
“Jeanne Shaheen continues to play politics with Department of Homeland Security funding by voting to block legislation that will fund the agency and unravel President Obama’s unconstitutional executive actions on immigration that she once opposed,” said NHGOP chair Jennifer Horn.
“During her 2014 reelection campaign, Senator Shaheen claimed to oppose the President’s executive actions and even voted with Senator Ted Cruz to block them. Granite Staters are smart enough to see through Jeanne Shaheen’s dishonest flip-flop and realize that she is a hypocritical Washington politician who blindly takes orders from the Obama Administration,” Horn said.
Shaheen’s office and the New Hampshire Democratic Party did not immediately respond to the New Hampshire Journal’s requests for comments on Horn’s criticism.
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte was not mentioned during the Shaheen media call, but is on the opposite side of this issue from Shaheen, saying Tuesday that the DHS funding legislation “should receive a full debate for opportunities for members of both parties to offer amendments and it’s unfortunate that Senate Democrats voted against even allowing debate on this bill.”
But Lang said Shaheen should be thanked for “not playing politics with public service. We need to talk about response times, and not rhetoric.”
Lang said the federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) and AFG (Assistance to Firefighters Grants) are key to ensuring that firefighters are equipped to do their jobs. They are funded through FEMA, which in turn, is part of DHS.
“September 11 (2001) taught us that firefighters need to be prepared moving forward to deal with many security challenges,” said Lang. He said the federal government shares in the responsibility to ensure that preparedness.
“If we are going to be our nation’s first line of defense, we need support from Congress,” Lang said.
After the media call, Lang told the New Hampshire Journal in an interview, “I want everybody to remember that moments after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Republicans and Democrats at our nation’s capital sang ‘God Bless America’ and committed to work together, and out of that came the Department of Homeland Security. It is truly sad for firefighters in the State of New Hampshire that DHS would become nothing more than a political pawn on a congressional chess board.”
Chief Erickson described several circumstances in which firefighters in Laconia were able to save lives or minimize casualties as a result, he said, of programs and equipment funded by the homeland security department.
He said federal grants have allowed his department to expand its ranks by four, and, he said the impact has been “profound.”
“We’ve seen improvements in our four-minute response time. We were able to put an extra vehicle on the road. And we have seen a huge improvement in our fire attack capability. We are getting to fires more quickly and reducing the threat to the public and to the firefighters themselves.
“We’ve gone from 206 lost shifts due to injuries four years ago to 45 this past year,” Erickson said. “Some of it could be luck but much of it has to do with having that extra person at an emergency to share in the work,” which he said, “results in less fatigue.”
Shaheen noted that some Republicans have said that halting funding for the department would not have a huge impact. But she disagreed and noted that it would also affect border security and protection against cyber attacks.