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Cabinet Security Proposal Sailing Through Congress

Defense: Democratic, GOP leaders to push for quick passage of Bush's anti-terrorism initiative.

June 14, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With a major shove from top Democrats usually at odds with President Bush, congressional leaders on Thursday accelerated their drive to win swift approval of his far-reaching homeland security plan.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) told reporters he hopes to pass a bill creating the Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security by late July, before Congress breaks for its summer recess.

In the House, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) announced a road map for action. The bipartisan strategy, Gephardt said, would "bring the bill to the floor quickly so that our new Homeland Security Department can get up and running as soon as possible."

Gephardt has set the most aggressive timetable for the measure, pushing for final congressional approval by the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bush has embraced that goal, though some leading Republicans caution that more time may be needed.

Thursday's announcements, coming one week after the president announced his proposal to create what would be the third-largest Cabinet department, offered the strongest confirmation yet that many lawmakers from both parties are eager to give Bush's plan their blessing.

Still, that attitude is tempered by the certainty that crafting the legislation will prove difficult as Congress puts its own stamp on the president's plan. And some senior lawmakers are warning against haste.

"Let's not rush into it and figure out that we've done something wrong at a later date," said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). He chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees some agencies, including the Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration, that would be swept into the new 169,000-employee department.

History suggests the difficulties Congress may face as it seeks to clear a government reorganization plan this year. A case in point is the consolidation most often cited by the Bush administration as a comparison to its proposed Homeland Security Department: the creation of the modern Pentagon.

It took President Truman more than a year and a half to convince Congress to merge the armed services after World War II. Before he could launch the Defense Department, Truman had to overcome enormous infighting within his military and on Capitol Hill.

Several other Cabinet departments created since then were also debated for a year or more before winning congressional approval. And some presidential reorganization plans were rejected altogether.

But analysts and lawmakers say the dynamic this year is different. Lawmakers are keen to help Bush restore a sense of safety to the nation that long considered itself almost immune from foreign attack.

"This responds to an immediate threat and has so much force behind it," said Stephen Hess, a presidential analyst at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. "People are scared. They want all the protection they can get. They want to feel secure."

Leading Democrats are joining the president's call for rapid action on the Homeland Security Department, in part because they are reluctant to cede an election-year issue to Republicans.

Daschle noted that Democrats had pushed a reorganization plan similar to Bush's through the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this year over GOP objections--"Before it was cool," he said.

Daschle said the committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), would consider Bush's plan even before it is formally sent to Capitol Hill in coming weeks. Senate leaders would then settle on a compromise bill to be moved to the floor by mid- to late July, he said.

The House plan announced by Hastert and Gephardt would set up a procedure to ensure the bill moves quickly.

First, the House Government Reform Committee and other panels would examine the legislation. Then it would be refined by a special committee, chaired by House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), before moving to a floor vote.

The procedure allows the House leaders to give the Government Reform chairman, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a key initial role. But it also puts the leaders in position to overrule him and other committee heads if the legislation seems to be spinning out of control.

Also Thursday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge continued his drive to win congressional support for the Bush plan. Ridge briefed senators behind closed doors, a day after doing the same with House members.

*

Times staff writers Janet Hook and Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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