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Bush Submits Security Post Bill

Politics: It is left to Congress to come up with detailed plans on homeland Cabinet-level agency. Plan sets rules on intelligence sharing.

June 19, 2002|VICKI KEMPER and NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, working to reorganize the government around an anti-terrorism mission, submitted to Congress a blueprint Tuesday for a bureaucratic empire that would give a new Cabinet secretary sweeping, largely undefined authority over intelligence, immigration, public health, transportation and emergency response.

Perhaps most significantly, the legislation directs the FBI, the CIA and other intelligence-collecting agencies to give the secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security any and all information they have on terrorist threats and on the vulnerabilities to attack of infrastructures and key targets--nuclear power plants or the banking system, for example.

White House officials urged Congress to move quickly on the legislation, but the Bush administration's bill to authorize the transfer of 22 government agencies, more than 169,000 federal employees and about $37 billion to the new department was short on details.

''It's sort of a handoff,'' said a senior administration official, who spoke to reporters on background. ''We're handing off to them and now they've got to run with it.''

Tom Ridge, Bush's homeland security director and a leading candidate to head the new department, also called for prompt action and for cooperation between the legislative and executive branches.

''As history has shown, when the Congress of the United States and the president of the United States unite, no challenge is too great, no cause is out of reach, no dream is impossible, whether it's winning a world war, a cold war or the war on terrorism,'' he told reporters at a news conference as he was flanked by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.

The vagueness of the bill, which White House officials said reflected the importance of ''managerial flexibility'' and speed in setting up the department, could slow its passage through Congress, where lawmakers like to spell out both the powers and the boundaries of federal agencies.

''It's a disappointment,'' said Paul C. Light, vice president and director of government studies at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, noting that the draft legislation was just 35 pages long. ''It is a slapped-together approach that is destined for great confusion, great difficulty and possible failure.''

Some influential lawmakers also warned the White House to slow down.

''I'm a little bit concerned about some people's need to rush this thing through,'' said Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Governmental Affairs Committee, which will hold its first hearing on the Bush proposal Thursday. ''Once we lock something in, it's going to be there forever, whether it's a good idea or not.''

Plans for the creation of a Homeland Security Department have been on the fast track since June 6, when Bush reversed his long-standing opposition to moving numerous security-related government functions into one single department with Cabinet status--and turned the tables on Congress. Lawmakers from both parties who had been working to win Cabinet status for the security agency suddenly were put in the position of responding to a White House proposal--and to repeated entreaties from the president to put aside turf battles.

Bush repeated that theme Tuesday, telling audience members at an event dedicated to homeownership: ''It's going to be hard for some in Congress to give up a little power here and there.''

Yet top congressional leaders from both major parties are eager to get the legislation to the president's desk as early as the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and their determination showed Tuesday.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) pledged to push the bill ''in a diligent manner'' and ''hopefully get it done as quickly as possible.'' Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) urged bipartisan cooperation. ''We know we have an overwhelming responsibility,'' Daschle said, ''and I hope we can do it in an expeditious manner.''

The gears of Congress are already in motion. Senate Democrats, over Republican opposition, already have pushed a bill through committee that is similar to what Bush has proposed. And the House today is expected to approve a resolution establishing a special committee, chaired by Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), to shepherd the legislation.

But the drive for fast action may be slowed by senior lawmakers who are calling for careful evaluation of Bush's proposal, particularly in what it does and does not say.

The White House bill gives the Homeland Security secretary a great deal of flexibility in determining the department's structure, as well as sweeping powers over a wide range of government functions.

For the first time, for example, the power to define the rules for all foreigners entering the country--from guest workers to tourists and students--would be vested in that one person, said the senior administration official.

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