The Department of Homeland Security continues to support the Coast Guard’s efforts to procure a fleet of new heavy polar icebreakers and any leasing options considered for icebreakers won’t be at the expense of the Polar Security Cutter (PSC) program, the top DHS official told a Senate panel on Wednesday.
“Senator, we are 100 percent committed to augmenting the Coast Guard fleet,” Alejandro Mayorkas told Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “We recognize the importance of those cutters.”
Mayorkas was testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s panel that oversees funding for DHS. Murkowski asked Mayorkas how DHS “plans to continue positive momentum” for the PSC program and if the Biden administration would reprogram funding from the new icebreaker effort in favor of a leasing arrangement.
Mayorkas replied that “We do not intend to compromise the funding of those cutter and we will lease to the extent that we can and only as a bridge during that time that we do not have built and owned vessels. It will not be at the expense of that.”
The Coast Guard is currently under contract with shipbuilder VT Halter Marine to build the first PSC and plans to buy at least three of the ships. Toward the end of the Trump administration, the government was considering leasing polar icebreakers to fill gaps in the nation’s icebreaking needs until the new PSCs are delivered beginning in 2024. However, the first PSC isn’t expected to begin operations until 2027.
The Coast Guard currently has a fleet of two polar icebreakers, one medium and one heavy, both of which have suffered significant issues during operations in recent years. The lone heavy icebreaker will be undergoing a phased life-extension program to help keep it operating for another six or seven years.
The administration on Friday is set to send to Congress its fiscal year 2022 federal budge request. In April, the administration released a “skinny” budget that seeks $52.2 billion in discretionary spending for DHS, essentially flat with FY ’21. The preliminary budget offered few program and agency level details.
Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.), the ranking member on the Homeland Security subcommittee, said the discretionary request for DHS is “highly concerning,” noting that other federal agencies are requesting funding increases and that “the Department of Homeland Security stands alone as the only department held virtually flat from last year. This is highly conspicuous thrift from an administration that has already enacted and proposed trillions [of dollars] in new spending.”
Mayorkas offered little new in terms of DHS budget plans for FY ’22, instead preferring to wait until the Friday announcement.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the chairman of the panel, pressed Mayorkas on whether the department will submit a request for supplemental funding reprogramming of funds to pay for border security and immigration processing operations to contend with an ongoing surge of migration to the U.S. along the southern border.
Mayorkas said that DHS is reviewing its current resources to “ensure that we are using them wisely, most efficiently, and see what we can do within the funding that we already have received before we come back to Congress and ask for more.” He expects to send a reprogramming request to Congress before the end of June.
“But I think we have an obligation to look inside before we go outside,” Mayorkas said, referring to transferring funds from existing programs before asking for new funding.