U.S. Senate approves $42.9 billion homeland security bill

WASHINGTON Fri Jul 10, 2009 8:18am EDT

A U.S. border agent watches video monitors of cameras placed along the U.S. and Canada border at the American border crossing at Sweetgrass, Montana, May 28, 2009. REUTERS/Todd Korol

A U.S. border agent watches video monitors of cameras placed along the U.S. and Canada border at the American border crossing at Sweetgrass, Montana, May 28, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Todd Korol

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Thursday approved a wide-ranging $42.9 billion measure to pay for improving U.S. border security, clamp down on illegal immigration and beef up cyber security in fiscal 2010.

The Senate voted 84-6 for the annual spending bill funding the Department of Homeland Security for the year starting October 1, and now lawmakers must work out differences with a $42.6 billion version of the bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last month.

Debate over the bills offered insight into deep divisions over how to address illegal immigration into the United States, beef up security on the U.S. borders, and what to do with the estimated 12 million people in the country illegally.

The Senate measure provides $10.1 billion for customs and border protection, including $800 million for bolstering security along the U.S. border with Mexico, where drug and weapons trafficking has spiked and sparked growing concerns.

The legislation also includes almost $400 million for cyber security, a 27 percent increase over fiscal 2009, and comes as several U.S. government websites were attacked in the past few days by hackers.

The Senate agreed to several amendments, including one that would block the release of photographs of abuse of detainees by U.S. personnel. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued to make the photos public.

Another amendment approved would allow individuals to import prescription drugs from Canada as long as they comply with U.S. law and they are not in the business of importing such medicine.

Senators also agreed to an amendment that would require the Obama administration to complete 700 miles of reinforced fencing along the Mexican border by the end of 2010, and bar just using virtual fencing and vehicle barriers.

The three provisions were not in the House version, so lawmakers will have to work out their differences.

The Senate also agreed to make permanent a program for verifying the immigration status of those seeking work in the United States, known as E-Verify. The system is voluntary for private employers but Department of Homeland Security plans to require federal contractors to use it starting September 8. The House extended it for two years.

The administration had wanted to extend the program for a couple of years and Democrat Charles Schumer, who heads the Senate subcommittee on immigration, has suggested a robust biometric system instead of making E-Verify permanent.

Senate Democrats hope to start work on reforming the whole immigration system later this year, but the White House, which is focused on its top priority of revamping U.S. healthcare, has cast doubt on whether that debate will begin this year.

(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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