WASHINGTON — Warning the Bush administration not to overreach, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday criticized parts of the president's plan for a Homeland Security Department as an attempt to put the new agency ''above the law.''
Drawing fire from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) were administration proposals that could exempt the agency from provisions of federal whistle-blower protection law, public-record disclosure law, purchasing rules and a range of management regulations.
''What this does is put them above the law. That is very troubling to me,'' Leahy told Tom Ridge, the White House homeland security director, during a committee hearing on the Bush plan.
Leahy said that unless his concerns are addressed, legislation to enact the plan could run into obstacles.
While several committees on Capitol Hill delved into the Bush plan, which congressional leaders hope will clear Congress this year, the House overwhelmingly approved a separate bill requiring the administration to set up new procedures for sharing terrorism-related intelligence with state and local authorities. The vote was 422 to 2.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who co-authored the legislation with Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), said it would help ensure that local police get timely and credible information to help them respond to emerging threats.
''Every act of terrorism is local,'' Harman said. ''It happens on someone's real estate. This bill is designed to deal with that issue.''
Law enforcement groups across the country backed the bill, which now goes to the Senate. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said, ''Effective communications between agencies is one of the most important tools law enforcement can have.''
The Bush administration supports the bill, with some qualifications.
Information-sharing became an issue in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as local, state and federal law enforcement officials grappled with how to respond to threats and whether to make them publicly known.
In one episode last fall, Gov. Gray Davis announced that he had tightened security at major bridges in California after learning of threats he viewed as significant. Other sources, however, downplayed the threats.
Harman said her legislation would help governors facing such situations by establishing an improved process for evaluating the credibility of information the federal government sends to state and local authorities.
The two dissenters were Reps. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio).
Bush's plan for the Homeland Security Department would create a vast new Cabinet agency with nearly 170,000 employees and a mission of protecting the nation from terrorism and other domestic threats.
Ridge vigorously defended the president's proposal before Leahy's committee--as he has in several similar appearances in recent days--but promised to work with senators to try to address their concerns.
At one point, as Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), pressed him on whether the administration would guarantee protections to whistle-blowers within the new department, Ridge said Bush fully supports federal employees who want to raise alarms about government missteps.
''We'll just have to work with you to assure you that the kind of protection you want to give these men and women exists within the statute,'' Ridge said.
Ridge did not directly respond to Leahy's attack. But he did say that some information the agency collects from sources in private industry should be shielded from public view--a point business leaders have pressed repeatedly in recent months.
''It would not be in the best interest of American businessmen or women or any other American, frankly, to draw a road map of critical infrastructure vulnerabilities for those who would do us harm,'' Ridge said.
Several other committees are examining pieces of the proposed department, which would take in such far-flung agencies as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Coast Guard, the Customs Service and the Transportation Security Administration.
The House Armed Services Committee quizzed defense officials on Wednesday about the role the Pentagon would play in homeland security. Several Republicans and Democrats voiced fears that the plan seemed rushed.
Afterward, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) said: ''The president will probably get what he wants. But not without a lot of members grumbling and saying, 'Hey, we really have second thoughts about this.' ''