May 5, 2002
Bush faces strong congressional challenge on homeland security
By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress mounted their strongest challenge yet to President Bush's homeland security strategy Thursday, introducing bipartisan legislation that would create a Cabinet department and a White House office with clear legal authority to lead the effort.
“No organization guarantees failure — and we have had no
organization,” said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Redondo Beach, one of four Democrats and three Republicans from the Senate and House who unveiled the measure.
The White House, which had resisted similar moves for months, did not rule out making Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge a Cabinet officer, subject to Senate confirmation. The idea is being explored as part of a domestic security assessment Ridge is conducting.
“At this time it is premature to say what the final product will be,
whether it is a Cabinet-level department, a statutory office or no
change, but we are not ruling anything out and will carefully review all legislation,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
On a related front, lawmakers have begun a major push to arm airline pilots, ignoring objections from Bush, Ridge and other administration officials.
Ridge is currently a presidential appointee and his authority is
spelled out in an executive order.
While lawmakers have been reluctant to criticize the administration's conduct of the war against terrorism abroad, several have been outspoken about what they see as weaknesses in Bush's effort to secure the home front. Harman, the top Democrat on the House terrorism and homeland security subcommittee, has repeatedly said Ridge lacks adequate legal
authority to do his job.
“We have had an administration in search of a strategy. Now we have a bipartisan, bicameral group ready to help this administration find a strategy,” she said.
Ridge also has angered some leading members of Congress by refusing to formally testify on homeland security spending and other issues. On Thursday, he “briefed” some senators on border security.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., another leader of the effort to put
Ridge in the Cabinet, cited Ridge's inability to engineer a
comprehensive reorganization of border control agencies as an example of why the legislation is needed.
“He lacks the necessary authority to accomplish what needs to be
done. This job needs administrative teeth, but as currently configured is likely to get bitten by the bureaucracy,” Lieberman said.
The legislation would create a Department of National Homeland
Security to plan and coordinate domestic security measures. Eight other agencies and offices would be transferred to the department, including the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A separate White House Office of Combating Terrorism also would be established. The office would wield broad authority over homeland security spending. Its director would also be subject to Senate confirmation.
Meanwhile, another clash between Congress and the White House is brewing over the controversial issue of arming airline pilots. House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and aviation subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., introduced legislation to allow pilots to have guns in the cockpit, after undergoing training and background checks.
A group of Republican and Democratic senators is pushing similar
Arming pilots is “an absolutely necessary step to assure the safety
and security of the traveling public,” Mica said. “If any of the pilots
on Sept. 11 had this right, that day could have been quite different.”
Bush, Ridge and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta oppose the move, saying it would endanger the safety of passengers. Mineta has spoken more favorably of arming pilots with “nonlethal” weapons like stun guns.
United Airlines has purchased Taser stun guns and is training crew
members to use them, hoping for a favorable ruling from the
Transportation Security Administration.
However, critics say Tasers can be overcome by simple countermeasures like wearing heavy clothing and come in only one- or two-shot models.