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Time Is Enemy of Homeland Defense Plan

Terrorism: A tight window for legislative action and myriad turf battles threaten Bush's proposal for a new Cabinet department.


WASHINGTON — President Bush mobilized the power of his office Friday to press for approval of his Department of Homeland Security, but his plan faces the twin dangers of jealousy over legislative power and a tight congressional calendar.

The president, bracing for titanic turf battles, met with prominent lawmakers and then took to the people of Iowa his case for consolidating a wide range of homeland security agencies into a single Cabinet department.

While Bush assigned the utmost urgency to his proposal, it was headed toward a congressional review that is ordinarily anything but speedy. In particular, many congressional committees could resist the prospective loss of jurisdiction over agencies moving to the new department.

"There's going to be a lot of turf protection in the Congress," Bush said before meeting at the White House with congressional supporters of a new department. "But I'm convinced that, by working together, we can do what's right for America."

A day after Bush announced his plan on national television, the White House appealed for the same sort of unity that enabled Congress to approve several major bills after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, often within weeks or even days.

But that spirit may prove difficult to re-create nine months later, with the November congressional elections sharpening partisan tensions and producing stalemate or delay on a host of issues. For example, Congress has yet to complete an emergency anti-terrorism bill that Bush requested in March.

"I wish we'd all been together on this last fall," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) told reporters after meeting with Bush to plot legislative strategy. "We might have had it all in place by now."

Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, is sponsoring legislation similar to what Bush has proposed. He said he plans hearings soon on the Bush proposal and will seek to move toward a quick floor vote. A House Government Reform subcommittee also plans a hearing for Tuesday.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), another participant in the White House meeting, said afterward that the president had made clear he was "open to fine-tuning" his plan. "But I don't think they're open to doing nothing," she said.

"This is going to be a tough battle, because we're going to be stepping on some people's toes," Bush said at a pork exposition in Des Moines. "You see, when you take power away from one person in Washington, it tends to make them nervous."

Bush said the new agency, with more than 160,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $37 billion, would bring together security functions now scattered throughout the government.

The president also dispatched aides to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers and their staffs.

In one meeting, Bush's chief lobbyist, Nicholas Calio, and other White House aides were peppered with questions, from whether the postal inspection service would be part of the new Cabinet department (it wouldn't) to whether the administration still plans to give Congress a detailed proposal for homeland defense (it does).

Calio predicted that lawmakers would rise to the challenge of approving the new department by year's end. "We think the magnitude of the task is going to help drive it toward a successful conclusion."

The congressional calendar is working against the plan. With Congress hoping to be in recess in August and to adjourn in early October for the November elections, only about three months remain on the legislative calendar--not much time for such a complex proposal. If the debate slides into next year, the new Congress will have to start fresh.

Dozens of congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the pieces of the bureaucracy that would constitute the Department of Homeland Security, and many of them don't want to lose their authority over those agencies.

Even before Bush announced his plan, a tiff in the House between the Ways and Means Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee temporarily delayed approval of a bill to enhance port security.

The big loser in the reorganization would be the Transportation Department, which would yield the Coast Guard and the new Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible for airport security.

Last fall, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta argued that his department was the natural place to lodge the Transportation Security Administration. On Friday, he put the best face on his possible loss of not only that agency but also the Coast Guard. "Those are two major agencies, but no matter what happens we still have a job to do," Mineta said.

At the Justice Department, some officials said privately that they would be glad to be rid of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has embarrassed its parent department by, for example, approving student visas for two of the Sept. 11 hijackers exactly six months after the pair steered their planes into the World Trade Center.

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