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House Takes Up Bush Security Plan

Congress: Struggle with White House looms as panels debate homeland defense reorganization.

July 11, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congress began slicing up President Bush's plan for a new homeland security agency Wednesday, with many lawmakers breaking sharply from the administration vision for immigration services, emergency response management and other significant elements of the proposed Cabinet department.

Votes in several House committees, though preliminary, gave a clear view of the intense legislative struggle unfolding as Capitol Hill grapples with one of the broadest government reorganization proposals in half a century.

For example, Bush's GOP allies on the House Judiciary Committee strayed from his proposal for a new Department of Homeland Security in legislation the committee endorsed on a bipartisan voice vote.

Rather than drawing the entire Immigration and Naturalization Service into the department, as Bush seeks, the committee would divide it--handing the job of enforcing immigration laws to Homeland Security but leaving the delivery of immigration services, such as permanent residency applications, to the Justice Department.

Also, the committee plan would move the Secret Service, which has elite anti-terrorism units, from the Treasury Department to Justice, even though Bush wants it in Homeland Security. Also, the committee would leave most of the Federal Emergency Management Agency out of the new department, contrary to the Bush plan.

The committee chairman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), said the proposal he sponsored with Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) would ensure that the government overhauls a long-dysfunctional immigration agency. Earlier this year, the House overwhelmingly approved an INS reform bill that also would split the agency in a similar way.

"INS service problems are legendary," he said. "And it is critical to ensure that immigration services are no longer sacrificed in favor of enforcement priorities."

Sensenbrenner added that he did not want the role of immigration services to be "subsumed by the massive size and scope of the new department."

Bush, meantime, resumed his push for a new Cabinet-level domestic security department that would oversee nearly 170,000 employees drawn from 22 agencies now scattered throughout the executive branch.

Speaking to federal employees in Washington, Bush said: "All of you are in agencies that have got more than one priority, but the single most important priority is to protect the homeland now in America. We're at war."

Bush's speech came just more than a month after he unveiled his idea for the Homeland Security Department, a move he initially resisted immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Now that Congress is scrutinizing Bush's proposal in detail, lawmakers from both parties are angling to amend it. On Wednesday, five House committees--Judiciary, Science, International Relations, Ways and Means, and Armed Services--approved their versions.

Today, several more panels will take up the plan. House leaders hope to hammer committee ideas into a final bill for a floor debate by the end of the month. The Senate also plans to take up the issue before it breaks for the summer.

Some House committees, such as Armed Services, are merely fine-tuning the Bush proposal. But the Science Committee approved a version that would block Bush's proposal to move a computer security unit to Homeland Security from the Commerce Department. Ways and Means approved a plan that would allow Treasury to continue oversight of major portions of the Customs Service, even as that agency moves to Homeland Security. Bush seeks a simple transfer of Customs from one department to the other.

The administration managed to defend its proposal in one key arena: the issuance of visas to foreign visitors. Under the Bush plan, Homeland Security would oversee policy and regulations on visas, but the State Department would retain control of the consular offices around the world that grant them.

That arrangement has come under fire from lawmakers who believe the State Department has failed to keep would-be terrorists out of the country. But the International Relations Committee brokered a deal that would essentially preserve the Bush plan while allowing Homeland Security to send agents overseas to bolster safeguards in the visa-issuing system.

Other panels may weigh in today with major changes. Leaders of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, for example, are skeptical of plans to transfer the Coast Guard from the Transportation Department to Homeland Security. And Rep. Doug Ose (R-Sacramento) on the Government Reform Committee wants to keep the Secret Service in Treasury.

Also Wednesday, Democrat Reps. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles and David R. Obey of Wisconsin sent the White House a 30-page letter that questions many portions of the Bush plan.

The two, writing to Homeland Security advisor Tom Ridge, faulted the administration for failing to consult with relevant agencies before announcing its plan June 6. "It is being rushed through Congress on an accelerated schedule," Waxman and Obey wrote. "This is not normally an approach that produces sound policy."

Separately, Waxman disclosed that the Congressional Budget Office estimates start-up costs for the department to be about $3 billion--contradicting administration predictions of no new net costs.

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