Canada watching to see if border pact threatened by U.S. budget cuts

OTTAWA – Canada will be watching closely to see if a massive scheduled budget cut in the U.S. this week will affect the Beyond the Border pact between the two countries, says Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

About $85 billion in cuts are set to hit U.S. federal programs starting on Friday.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said earlier this week there would be pain for the Canada-U.S. border because her department would have to cut 5,000 border patrol agents if the cuts go through.

Baird said the deal is key to the prosperity of both countries.

“We’re going to continue to be very, very focused on it,”he said Wednesday. “After March 1 we’ll see what the challenges arise. Obviously this is not the way Canada would prefer to make these types of budgetary decisions.

“But it is what it is.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama signed the much vaunted border deal 14 months ago.

It is designed to speed trade across the 49th parallel while protecting the North American continent from terrorist threats.

Napolitano said the looming cuts, known as sequestration, will cause pain for Canadians, in particular at the busy Canada-U.S. border.

“Sequester will be felt up there because there’s only a few big crossing places for trade on the Canadian-U.S.border and they’re really important crossing places,” Napolitano said in a speech to a Washington think tank.

“In fact, trade-wise, they’re probably the No. 1 or 2 crossing places in the world. As sequester evolves and we have to furlough people who are port officers and not fill vacant positions, and not pay overtime, we’re unfortunately going to see those lines really stretch.”

If Congress fails to reach a deal to avert the cuts, Napolitano said, the jobs will be lost.

In addition to the 5,000 border patrol agents, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection is preparing to reduce its work hours by the equivalent of 2,750 inspectors as well, meaning cargo inspections at the border could drag on interminably for Canadian exporters.

David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador, has said repeatedly that the best thing his country can do for Canada is to get its fiscal house in order.

With this latest round of gridlock gripping Washington, various U.S. federal departments and agencies are laying out how they plan to cut costs.

The Pentagon will be forced to impose $55 billion in cuts and will call on 800,000 civilian employees to take unpaid time off.

Napolitano’s remarks raise questions about the future progress on the border deal.

In part, its success will be measured on the implementation of a series of pilot projects between the two countries.

In December, the two countries said in a progress report that they’d made significant progress but realize there’s still much work to do.

One outstanding project is the next generation of cross-border law enforcement, which will see police and security officials work even more closely than they do now.

It would build on joint border-policing efforts by creating integrated teams in areas such as intelligence and criminal investigations.

Two pilot projects were supposed to be up and running by last summer, but the progress report says officials are still evaluating the “operational and legal requirements” involved.