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RESPONSE TO TERROR

A Pragmatic Bush Claims Cause as His Own

Strategy: President's decision to reverse course on Cabinet post catches many off guard. But keeping an open mind on issues has paid off for him in the past.

June 07, 2002|EDWIN CHEN and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's decision to create a Department of Homeland Security took much of Washington by surprise. It shouldn't have.

His move to preempt Congress and embrace as his own a cause that he previously had resisted is a strategy that Bush used to good advantage time and again while governor of Texas.

"It's a well-established modus operandi," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist and longtime Bush watcher.

More than that, White House opposition to a Cabinet department visibly began to mellow in late April amid reports that the nation's intelligence community may have missed vital clues before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Yet until Thursday, most members of Congress had the impression that the president remained dead set against the idea.

"It came like a Nebraska spring thunderstorm--all of a sudden it was there," Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) said of Bush's proposal.

When Bush named Tom Ridge as his homeland security advisor last fall, he steadfastly distanced himself from the bipartisan clamor in Congress to create a domestic security agency to house all the parts of the federal bureaucracy charged with protecting America and Americans.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer provided an unequivocal answer at his Oct. 2 news briefing when asked whether the president was "open to a discussion" with Congress about legislation to make Ridge's job a Cabinet post. Fleischer's reply: "No."

A month later, White House officials circulated a flow chart depicting a maze of lines and boxes to suggest that a major reorganization would be too disruptive and politically difficult.

But Fleischer on Thursday laid out a chronology that depicted the administration as being open all along to a new Cabinet department.

He quoted Ridge as telling lawmakers in late October that he "may recommend down the road a realignment."

Such words prompted lawmakers to delay acting on their proposals. Among them were Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Reps. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo), Jane Harman (D-Venice) and William M. "Mac" Thornberry (R-Texas).

In the interim, the clamor for a Cabinet department escalated, sparked by the White House's refusal to allow Ridge to testify before Congress. As a Cabinet officer, Ridge would be obliged to testify, but as an advisor to the president he was not.

Ridge tried without much luck to appease his congressional critics by submitting to questioning in informal settings short of an official hearing.

Tensions mounted in the last few weeks as the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee approved a bipartisan bill to create a Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department, and the Senate Appropriations Committee included a proviso in an emergency spending bill to make Ridge's job subject to Senate confirmation and to compel him to testify.

Within the last week, several lawmakers sponsoring legislation to create the Cabinet department said the White House began to reach out to them.

But the enterprise remained low key and its details tightly held. Republican leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois were not notified of Bush's announcement until Wednesday.

Others were in the dark until Thursday morning, when the White House and GOP leaders began circulating a blizzard of briefing papers and talking points.

But the signs of a White House change of heart had already been apparent.

On April 10, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget, told the Senate governmental affairs panel that "the structure for organizing and overseeing homeland security may evolve over time" and that it ultimately might resemble Lieberman's vision.

Two weeks later, Ridge and White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. convened a meeting that launched the proposal of a Cabinet-level position for homeland security chief that Bush unveiled Thursday night.

"This was something that was discussed at length," Fleischer said, with Ridge and Card briefing Bush throughout the decision-making process.

Fleischer's public criticism of a Cabinet department began to soften during this period. At his May 17 news briefing, he said: "Congress has some different ideas about the possibility of creating a Cabinet post, and we're looking at those ideas."

A broader hint came earlier this week when the White House asked Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) to delay until next week a hearing on the subject by his subcommittee.

The effort grew out of a separate initiative to reorganize the agencies that deal with border security. "That's when the president

Bush signed off on the final proposal in late May, he said.

The White House initially had intended to have the reorganization plan ready in time for the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. But it was moved up in part to counter the congressional hearings now underway, said one senior White House official who asked to remain anonymous.

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