The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday completed its markup of an authorization bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that aims to improve the department’s acquisition efforts and related oversight, promotes cost savings and efficiency and hones its focus on the screening of international travelers entering and exiting the country.

The panel voted 9-1 to pass the DHS Authorization Act of 2011, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) opposing.

The markup began last week and finished yesterday with votes on a number of amendments (Defense Daily, Sept. 15). In yesterday’s session, the committee voted 9-8 in favor of an amendment by Paul that would freeze the hiring at DHS of non-emergency personnel until the unemployment rate in the country dips below 8 percent. The definition of non-emergency personnel would be determined by the Homeland Security Secretary.

The measure allows DHS to set priorities on what full-time equivalent employee positions get filled and which ones don’t, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the committee, said during debate on the amendment. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.), chairman of the committee, who voted against the amendment, said he is concerned that it could hinder hiring in key mission areas such as cyber security.

Unemployment is currently hovering around 9 percent in the United States.

The panel rejected by 12-5 an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that would have eliminated four grant programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, three of which states and localities can obtain funding for under the Homeland Security Grant Program and another under the Urban Area Security Initiative, he said. One of the grant programs funds efforts by the states to improve the security around the issuance of driver’s licenses to ensure compliance with the REAL ID Act.

Coburn said the combined savings from eliminating the four grant programs would amount to $1.6 billion over 10 years.

Lieberman, who opposed the amendment, said that the authorization bill contains a provision calling for DHS to provide a report to Congress on a grant consolidation effort currently underway at the department.

Separately, the House Homeland Security Committee approved multiple bills by voice vote, including one by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking member on the panel, that would create an Aviation Security Advisory Committee under the Transportation Security Administration and another by Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), that would require TSA to develop a separate screening process for military personnel flying on civilian aircraft.

Other bills approved by the House panel include one introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) to create an ombudsman office at TSA, and another by Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chairman of the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, that requires DHS to develop a plan to gain operational control of the border in the next five years.

The committee also approved a bill introduced in May by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the panel, and Thompson, that urges the United States and European Union (EU) to continue sharing passenger name record data that aids in the screening against watch lists to detect terrorists and criminals traveling internationally. Since 2007 the United States and EU have standards in place for the sharing of passenger name records but there have been efforts in Europe to limit the agreement, which is supposed to be in effect until 2014.

Regarding the DHS authorization bill approved by the Senate committee, King said last week that he hopes to take it up shortly in his committee.