Ridge Nears Confirmation

Times Staff Writer

Tom Ridge moved one step closer Friday to becoming the nation's first secretary of Homeland Security, winning the unanimous endorsement of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

The full Senate is expected to approve Ridge's confirmation Tuesday, and the former Pennsylvania governor could be sworn in as soon as Jan. 24, the official deadline for the creation of the Cabinet-level department.

Ridge's appearance before the Senate committee came amid a heated debate between the White House and congressional Democrats over homeland security funding, as well as continued partisan disagreements about civil service protections for the department's 177,000 employees.

Yet the bipartisan support for Ridge underscored the continued dominance of national security issues in Congress 16 months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Ridge's swift approval also demonstrated that, if nothing else, President Bush had chosen a well-liked person for the formidable job of merging 22 disparate agencies and making anti-terrorism efforts their common mission.

Virtually all the committee's members, including Democratic senators who continue to oppose key elements of the administration's homeland security legislation, expressed their affection and respect for Ridge, 57. Before his election as Pennsylvania governor, Ridge served in the House for 12 years.

"The president could not have picked a better person," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).

Yet no one underestimated the challenges, both bureaucratic and logistical, Ridge and his department will face. Among the agencies that will be swallowed up by the new department are the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Secret Service.

"Given the breadth of responsibilities, this Cabinet post may well be the most challenging position created by Congress since it established the Department of Defense in 1947," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee's new chairwoman.

Several senators recalled the intelligence failures that left the nation vulnerable to the Sept. 11 attacks and said they remained concerned that the new department would not be able to bridge information gaps among the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency.

"The success of Homeland Security will depend on how it analyzes intelligence," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a leader in the creation of the department and a newly declared candidate for president, criticized the Bush administration for defining the department's role as protecting critical infrastructure -- roads, bridges, the electrical grid and financial systems.

"The fact is, we can imagine horrific terrorist attacks that are not against critical infrastructure but against people," he said.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and other Democratic members said they were concerned that the Homeland Security Act's confidentiality provisions could allow private companies to get away with illegal activity.

He called on Ridge to protect department whistle-blowers and to remove a provision in the law that subjects corporate employees who reveal even unclassified information to criminal penalties.

On the question of whether the United States is safer from terrorism than before Sept. 11, Ridge strongly disagreed with assessments that it is not.

"We are a far safer country than we were before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks," he said. Yet he warned that the last 16 months represent only "the beginning of what will be a long struggle to protect our nation from terrorism."

"We face a hate-filled, remorseless enemy that takes many forms, has many places to hide and is often invisible," he said.

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