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If Al Qaeda Strikes, Will Nation Unite – Or Point Fingers?

If terrorists set off a dirty bomb in New York harbor or poison the Midwest’s milk supply, killing thousands, will Democrats and Republicans in Washington respond by pulling together as they did on Sept. 11, 2001?

Or will Democrats start pointing fingers at the Bush administration, accusing it of short-changing homeland security. And will Republicans blame Democrats for playing politics in a national crisis? [IMGCAP(1)]

There’s reason to fear disunity — and that prospect ought to cause leaders of both parties to resolve to face the nation’s enemies together and work to so fortify homeland defenses that neither side has reason to blame the other.

Democrats certainly are hammering President Bush on the homeland security issue — partly out of justifiable concern that he is not doing and spending enough, partly to get to his right on a national security issue, and partly out of rage at the way the GOP used the issue to defeat Democrats in November.

In late January, for instance, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) declared, “When people ask, ‘Are we safer than we were on the morning of September 11, 2001?’ the answer is, only marginally, because somewhere along the line we lost our edge. We let our guard down.”

She also said, “Truth is we are not prepared, we are not supporting our first responders and our approach to securing our nation is haphazard at best. We have relied on a myth of homeland security — a myth written in rhetoric, inadequate resources and a new bureaucracy, instead of relying on good old fashioned American ingenuity, might and muscle.”

On Tuesday, right-wing radio talk-meister Rush Limbaugh said of Clinton and other Democrats, “I’m not saying they want us to be attacked. But it’s almost as though the Democrats can’t wait for another attack. If it happens, they’re prepared to unleash an assault on the president the likes of which we haven’t seen from them in a long time.” [IMGCAP(2)]

He went on to blame Democrats for “cutting the military, cutting intelligence funding, adopting the ACLU’s approach on national security and law enforcement.”

And, he concluded, Democrats hear FBI and CIA warnings of a terrorist attack “and they start salivating. They see this as a political opportunity and they’re going to make the most hay out of it they can.”

“Although it’s distasteful that more loss of life resulting from a terrorist attack will spiral into just another political issue for the left, but it will. That’s what they’re setting up,” Limbaugh said.

It could happen, this divisive blame game. For it not to happen, it’s time for the White House to stop dismissing Democratic complaints about low-ball funding of homeland security and start listening — and for Democrats to take the political edge off their criticisms of Bush policy.

From the first days after Sept. 11, Bush has given Democrats the impression that anything they had to say on homeland security was not worth listening to.

Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) describes how he and Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) used the time when Congress was shut down during the 2001 anthrax crisis to interview agency officials about their needs.

They compiled a wish list, Obey told me, then pared it down, cut it in half and went to the White House on Nov. 6, 2001, with then-Senate Appropriation Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Bush, says Obey, started the meeting by saying his budget director, Mitch Daniels, had assured him that current funding levels were adequate and “told us that if Congress appropriated one dollar more than he requested, he’d veto it.”

Since then, Obey’s staff has not only called for increased funding, but has also issued angry broadsides declaring Bush has “recklessly denied funds for such things as port security, aviation security [and] military salaries … all during a time when his administration vows to … prevent an imminent terrorist attack.”

Whether it was reckless or not, it is true that Bush has blocked funding increases recommended by Democrats — at the same time touting his own increases for homeland security as adequate.

Bush’s budget for homeland defense agencies went from $18 billion in fiscal 2002 to $36 billion in fiscal 2003, and his 2004 request goes to $43.6 billion.

But Democrats insist that actual new funding for domestic security programs goes up only $312 million, especially short-changing port security, local police, fire departments and health workers — the first responders.

Democrats have proposals that the administration ought to take seriously, such as Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-N.Y.) $10 billion plan to equip commercial airliners with military-style defenses against such ground-to-air missiles as the thousands of Stinger and ex-Soviet SA-7s available in Afghanistan.

And Reps. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.) today will propose giving the states $17.7 billion — instead of the administration’s proposed $7 billion — for anti-terror upgrades.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, told me that cities have spent $6.5 billion on security since 2001 with federal help going only to a few.

Experts I’ve talked to say cities need chemical weapons detectors, training and communication systems for fire and police departments, and a hospital “surge capacity” — with assistance from the military — to treat mass casualties.

If al Qaeda were to set off a radioactive bomb in New York harbor or poison a city’s food or water supply, the Bush administration surely would spend billions more on homeland security. Why shouldn’t it do so now to forestall the worst?

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