WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge emerged from a Wednesday meeting with Sen. Robert Byrd still unwilling to grant the Appropriations Committee chairman's request to testify before Congress.
Ridge visited Byrd, D-W.Va., and several other senators on Capitol Hill, trying to explain why be believes that as a personal adviser to President Bush he has no obligation to formally testify.
"I have no operational authority over any department," Ridge said after meeting with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "I don't control any dollars. I can't hire and fire, but I do make recommendations."
Ridge said in the past two months he has had 33 meetings with members of the House and Senate and his staffers have had almost 70 others. He said he will continue to make himself available for such meetings.
"Available? Yes. Testifying? I just don't think it's appropriate," he said.
Byrd wasn't available to comment after the meeting. But last week he suggested the pace of Congress' work on next year's defense bill might depend, in part, on what Ridge has to say. Bush has said he wants to make passage of his defense budget request "the first order of business."
Byrd said portions of Ridge's testimony could be closed to the public if the information was sensitive.
"The president said he wanted to change the tone in Washington. And this is the same old tone, or worse — denying the right of Congress to have information it needs to do its work?" Byrd said.
The Bush administration says Ridge should be treated like National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who traditionally is immune from congressional testimony. That duty normally falls to Cabinet secretaries.
But Byrd and other lawmakers, some of them Republicans, contend Ridge is more powerful than most advisers because he coordinates spending by more than 80 federal agencies.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday the administration has offered to have Ridge meet informally with all 100 senators. The offer was declined, he said.
Ridge also met with Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both D-N.Y. Schumer declined to get involved in the debate over whether Ridge should testify.
"He's been nice enough to come to us here today and talk to us, and I'm not going to put him or anybody else on the spot right now," Schumer said.