Ridge Urges Congress to Preserve Homeland Plan
Even as powerful factions in Congress angle to carve up a Cabinet department that does not yet exist, a top advisor to President Bush pleaded Monday with senior lawmakers to preserve the core of the administration’s homeland security proposal, and the White House moved to unveil a companion strategy to combat terrorism.
Tom Ridge, Bush’s homeland security director, told a special panel of House leaders that the administration was ready to bargain over some parts of its proposal to reorganize the executive branch but would fight to win approval for others.
For instance, Ridge said, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are all “critical” to the success of the proposed Department of Homeland Security.
Last week, in the opening skirmish of what is expected to be an intense turf battle, some influential House committees voted not to move those agencies to the proposed department.
Meantime, Ridge disclosed that a long-awaited “National Strategy for Homeland Security"--detailing in about 100 pages the threats the nation faces and the rationale for the newly proposed department--would be released today.
A summary of the strategy, which the White House made public Monday evening, laid out stark challenges.
“We must defend ourselves against a wide range of means and methods of attack,” the summary said. “Our enemies are working to obtain chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons for the purpose of wreaking unprecedented damage on America.... Our society presents an almost infinite array of potential targets that can be attacked through a variety of methods.”
The strategy, according to the summary, reflects many initiatives already underway since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in six “critical mission areas”: intelligence; border and transportation security; domestic counterterrorism; protection of critical infrastructure; defense against catastrophic terrorism; and emergency readiness and response.
For example, the strategy calls for development of systems of nuclear and chemical sensors to prevent terrorists from using weapons of mass destruction. Bush will outline the strategy today in a meeting with lawmakers.
Monday’s developments came as Congress intensified its search for compromise legislation to enact what the administration calls the broadest government reorganization in more than 50 years, since the modern Defense Department and intelligence agencies were created.
As announced by Bush in a June 6 address to the nation, the Department of Homeland Security would embrace more than 169,000 employees from 22 agencies now dispersed throughout the government.
Most lawmakers now agree that a new department, which would be the 15th in the cabinet, should be created. But there is so far no consensus on its size or its responsibilities.
This week, a special nine-member panel of House leaders will attempt to craft a homeland security bill for floor debate and a vote next week. To do that, the panel must meld competing, often conflicting recommendations from 11 House committees.
On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate plans to consider its own version before it begins a summer recess next month.
In his appearance before the House panel, Ridge did make some concessions. For instance, he announced that the administration would agree to keep in the Agriculture Department several thousand federal employees in charge of protecting crops and livestock. Originally, Bush had sought to move the entire 8,600-employee Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to Homeland Security.
The concessions reflected the emerging reality conceded by GOP leaders: Bush cannot get everything he wants on homeland security through Congress.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), chairman of the special leadership panel and one of the president’s strongest allies on Capitol Hill, said Bush had proposed “the basic template” for legislation that could be enacted. “But there will be noticeable differences from the president’s plan,” Armey added.
House Democrats on the special panel warned that the congressional GOP leadership and the administration would have to remain flexible to win their party’s support in a closely divided Congress.
“To make this work, we must build a bipartisan coalition that is as deep as it is broad,” Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told Ridge.
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), assistant to Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), said that the House should give “serious consideration” to the committees that recommended major changes in the Bush plan.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, for example, voted to block transfer of the Coast Guard and FEMA. The House Judiciary Committee voted to block the movement of a large division of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to block the proposed shift of health research units, focusing on bioterrorism, from the Department of Health and Human Services.
But many lawmakers remain loyal to Bush.
The House Government Reform Committee endorsed much of the Bush plan as drafted, though it narrowly voted to guarantee collective bargaining rights in the proposed department for federal employees now represented by unions, an amendment the administration opposes.
To defend the Bush plan, Ridge faces the difficult task of persuading lawmakers that many agencies whose functions are only partly tied to homeland security should move, in whole, to the proposed department. On the Coast Guard, which some defenders note serves the maritime industry in many ways that have little to do with port security, Ridge offered a practical political argument. If it is in Homeland Security, he said, the Coast Guard is likely to get more money--funding that can be used for non-security missions.
On the Secret Service, which has jurisdiction over some types of financial crimes, Ridge said that its training would be “a perfect match for the new department.” And on FEMA, he said, preparing to respond to terrorist attacks would also help the agency respond to fires and floods and other natural disasters.
But Ridge did not use those arguments with the crop and livestock units within the Agriculture Department, an instance when the administration bowed to protests from powerful farm-state legislators. Speaking with reporters, Ridge acknowledged that when divvying up and reshuffling agencies, “some tear lines are easy to identify,” but for others, “it’s difficult.”