The senators plan to introduce legislation today that would consolidate the Coast Guard, Customs Service and several other agencies into a new Cabinet-level Department of National Homeland Security. The sponsors include Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Bob Graham, D-Fla.
The proposal is attractive to many on Capitol Hill because it would give lawmakers oversight authority for homeland security. As a non-Cabinet-level adviser to Bush, Ridge cannot be compelled to testify and is less accountable to Congress than Cabinet secretaries are.
Bush had been reluctant to elevate the office to Cabinet level, insisting that he has given Ridge enough power to overhaul homeland security operations from his working space just a few steps from the Oval Office.
The administration signaled its openness on the issue April 11, when budget director Mitch Daniels testified before lawmakers that Ridge's job is to recommend how homeland security should function within the government, a mandate that included determining whether his own office should be Cabinet level.
A congressional GOP source familiar with Bush's meeting Wednesday with legislative leaders said he expects Ridge's strategic plan to recommend making homeland security a Cabinet-level department. Ridge spokesman Gordon Johndroe said no decision has been made by Ridge or Bush on the issue.
A second GOP official with knowledge of the White House review said Bush's advisers have concluded the president could not use his veto authority to block any bill that made homeland security a Cabinet agency. Doing so, both officials said, would expose Bush to criticism that he is not doing everything he can to protect the nation against terror.
The GOP sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bush may be forced to seek a Cabinet-level bill that suits him best. They said the White House has several problems with the Lieberman-Graham measure.
— The Associated Press
Ridge Addresses Senate, Sort Of
W A S H I N G T O N, May 2 — Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge says that while he's willing to be "accessible" to members of Congress, he's answerable to the president.
Ridge says that's why he didn't appear today before Senator Robert Byrd's committee but instead held an informal briefing for senators on homeland security.
Byrd didn't like it one bit, denouncing the move as "sophomoric" and "made for television."
Ridge and the Bush administration have stressed that because he is an adviser to the president, he doesn't have to appear before congressional panels.
Ridge spent 50 minutes talking to eleven senators, most of whom stayed for just a few minutes.
Most of the questions were easy, and only Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow suggested Ridge should appear before Byrd's committee.
—The Associated Press