WASHINGTON – The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee have backed off suggestions that they are weighing whether to subpoena Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to testify on Capitol Hill about a proposed spending increase on domestic defense.
The Bush administration wants spending on domestic security to double next year to $38 billion. That money is part of the overall defense spending budget requested for the Pentagon.
A spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd said Byrd and Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Ted Stevens have not discussed the subpoena option yet.
"That's not where they're at right now," said Tom Gavin, Byrd's press secretary.
Gavin said Byrd is trying to find another way to get Ridge to testify.
Friday, Byrd, D-W.Va., and Stevens, R-Alaska, sent a letter to President Bush asking to meet and discuss Ridge's refusal to testify.
They said Ridge has more power than the ordinary presidential adviser, coordinating spending by more than 80 federal agencies. In an interview following the letter's distribution, Byrd suggested that the pace of Congress' work on next year's defense bill might depend, in part, on what Ridge has to say.
Ridge was appointed by Bush in October to head up homeland security operations following the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Though a Cabinet-level position, the Bush administration said Ridge is an adviser to the president and not a Cabinet secretary.
The Bush administration said Ridge has privately briefed lawmakers but his refusal to appear before a congressional committee is the usual practice in which the president's immediate staff does not testify to Congress.
On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said that he would like the White House to drop its opposition to Ridge's appearance, but if not, a subpoena "is an option clearly."
"We've got to find a way to break the impasse. He's got to work with us. There is just too much at stake," said Daschle, D-S.D., on CBS' Face the Nation. "We want to look at all of the options at this point. But we're hoping it is not a necessary one. We are still hoping that they will have a change of heart."
On Monday, Gavin said Byrd and Stevens sent another letter to Bush on Friday to reassure the administration that they have no intention of asking Ridge about private meetings with the president. Gavin said they are hoping that may move the ball forward, but have yet to hear back from the administration.
As to the question of whether Byrd and Stevens would accept a closed door meeting with Ridge instead of an open hearing, Gavin said no.
"[Byrd] wants a hearing. He doesn't want a meeting. If this is about protecting American lives, the American people have a right to hear [his testimony]," he said.
Gavin said the committee would be sensitive to classified material and would close that part of the hearing to accommodate the sensitive nature of Ridge's testimony.
On Monday, Ridge's office maintained that he has no intention of testifying. A spokesman said, "Hopefully we will come to a satisfactory resolution of this issue that allows Congress to receive information they need while allowing the president to receive confidential advice."
A spokesman said Ridge has been on the hill several times to brief lawmakers, and the governor believes that testifying is better left to heads of departments. Ridge has no operational or budgetary control, the spokesman said.
Fox News' Julie Asher and Catherine Herridge and the Associated Press contributed to this report.