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Democrats Attack Item in Bush's Security Plan

Politics: Ridge gives long-awaited testimony before Congress. Lawmakers oppose a provision sidestepping civil service regulations.

June 21, 2002|NICK ANDERSON and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In the first flash of partisan dissent from President Bush's homeland security plan, Democrats on Thursday assailed a provision that could allow leaders of the proposed Cabinet agency to bypass federal personnel rules that protect civil servants.

The Democratic criticism emerged as Tom Ridge, Bush's point man on homeland security, appeared before House and Senate committees to give his first formal testimony to Congress since he came to Washington last fall to help improve domestic defenses against terrorism.

Ridge, a former congressman and governor of Pennsylvania, received a warm reception. So did most of the administration's plan to consolidate several agencies scattered across the government into one Department of Homeland Security.

But Democratic criticism on the civil service issue showed the 2-week-old proposal is entering a tough phase as Congress begins debating how to turn it into law.

While most lawmakers have voiced general support for Bush's push to fold 169,000 employees into a new department meant to counter terrorism and other domestic threats, Democrats zeroed in on a little-publicized provision of the draft bill the administration sent to Congress this week.

The provision would allow the secretary of Homeland Security and White House personnel officials to replace existing civil service regulations with a merit-based management system.

The existing rules aim to shield career government employees from political influence, granting many of them collective bargaining rights and other protections.

The Bush proposal is fiercely opposed by two unions that represent roughly 50,000 of the affected federal workers: the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union. Now Democratic allies are coming to their defense.

''There is unanimous [Democratic] opposition to the administration's proposal to circumvent the civil service laws of the country, as they are contemplating,'' Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said.

''We can't do that. We're not going to rewrite or totally exempt this or any federal agency from the laws pertaining to civil service.''

A More 'Agile' Agency

Ridge, in written testimony, defended the administration's initiative as an attempt to develop a ''motivated, high-performance and accountable workforce.''

Under questioning from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, he added that Bush wants to ''make the agency a lot more agile and give it some of the tools that it may need to deal with ... personnel challenges.''

In a subsequent hearing held by the House Government Reform Committee, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) told Ridge that Democrats consider civil service protections for federal employees ''non-negotiable.''

Ridge also faced questions on how the proposed executive shake-up would address intelligence lapses that occurred before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In one sharp exchange, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) grilled Ridge on why Bush's plan would not require that the Department of Homeland Security be given access to certain intelligence related to terrorist threats.

''It seems to me that it leaves the problem, the gaps, the cracks unanswered,'' Levin said, ''because right now we have a situation where the CIA and the FBI and other agencies do not share data. It's not integrated. The dots are not connected.''

Ridge said Bush wants the department to get enough relevant intelligence to ''enhance our ability as a country to identify threats and be prepared to act on them.''

He conceded that ''perhaps then we need to work on the language'' in the draft bill.

At the House committee hearing, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) complained that the reorganization plan ''doesn't address the most pressing security questions that we confront''--citing struggles in getting important intelligence related to terrorism into the right hands.

'Working in Secret'

Waxman also complained that the White House proposal was put together by a ''handful of political appointees working in secret.''

Ridge appeared at ease during his appearances before the committees, which came months after lawmakers from both major parties began urging the president to allow him to testify.

Until recently, Bush had cited executive prerogative in keeping Ridge off the formal stage on Capitol Hill.

But Ridge, after Bush's June 6 announcement of the proposed reorganization, became the top salesman for the plan.

With Ridge assuming that role, Bush reversed position and allowed him to testify.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate panel, said Ridge's appearance was ''long-awaited, much-pursued, greatly anticipated.'' Ridge, chuckling, acknowledged: ''There's been some pent-up interest in my testimony.''

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