FIRE Act Caught In Capitol Hill Crossfire

The United States Congress is a place where things often are not as they seem to be. It's like a burning building, with dead-end corridors, false ceilings, hidden truss roofs and hazardous materials that look innocent but can suddenly explode in a...


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Everyone was caught by surprise. The House Republican leadership was furious and wanted to know why Weldon - the leading proponent of fire legislation - didn't know it was coming. Since the IAFF has endorsed Vice President Gore in the presidential races, they saw it as a Democratic plot to embarrass the GOP. The IAFF denies this was their motive and insists they were simply trying to get the bill moving. Weldon was furious that he had been blind-sided and embarrassed. An angry McCain threatened to kill the Dodd amendment in the conference committee.

In fact, everyone is mad at someone. At a meeting with the fire organization, Weldon unloaded on the IAFF for not informing him of Dodd's maneuver. The bipartisan effort that put together the Congressional Fire Service Caucus, led by Weldon, could be seriously weakened by this episode. But the fire organizations are determined to keep working together to pass a FIRE Act and still believe they have a chance to save it as time runs out.

Sen. John Warner (R-VA), chairman of the conference committee, has become the new power broker in this saga and his staff is rewriting a pared-down version of the FIRE Act. It would provide $2.1 billion over five years, with only 5% set aside for outside organizations engaged in fire prevention activities. Weldon - presumably with the backing of House Republican leaders - is proposing a six-year, $1.5 billion FIRE Act that incorporates a number of other fire-rescue programs in addition to the matching grants. Weldon also is working with Sen. William Roth (R-DE) to revive the $100 million Weldon-Hoyer program as an amendment to the Agriculture appropriation bill.

As this is written, only three weeks are left before the 106th Congress comes to an end and the members go home to campaign for their own re-election. The fate of what's left of the FIRE Act is in the hands of the "Big Four" - Sen. Warner, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Rep. Floyd Spence (R-SC) and Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) - the powerful senior members of the conference committee. In the end, they will decide if it lives or dies.

I don't know what's going to happen. But the FIRE Act's tortuous journey has been a lesson for the fire-rescue service on how things work in Congress and how badly they need public support to get the federal aid they desperately need.


Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.