WASHINGTON – The White House left the door ajar Wednesday to making Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge's office a Cabinet-level position as the proposal gained steam on several fronts.
Presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer said Ridge is reviewing the issue as part of his overall homeland strategic plan scheduled to be completed in time for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"At this time it is premature to say what the final product will be, whether it is a Cabinet-level department, a statutory office or no change, but we are not ruling anything out and will carefully review all legislation," Fleischer said in a statement.
A group of senators plan to introduce legislation Thursday that would consolidate the Coast Guard, Customs Service and several other agencies into a new Cabinet-level Department of National Homeland Security. The sponsors include Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Bob Graham, D-Fla.
The proposal is attractive to many on Capitol Hill because it would give lawmakers oversight authority for homeland security. As a non-Cabinet-level adviser to Bush, Ridge cannot be compelled to testify and is less accountable to Congress than Cabinet secretaries.
Bush had been cool to elevating the office to Cabinet level, insisting that he has given Ridge enough power to overhaul homeland security from his working space just a few steps from the Oval Office.
The administration signaled its openness on the issue April 11, when budget director Mitch Daniels testified before lawmakers that Ridge's job is to recommend how homeland security should function within the government -- a mandate that included the question of whether his own office should be Cabinet level.
A congressional GOP source familiar with Bush's meeting Wednesday with legislative leaders said he expects Ridge's strategic plan to recommend making homeland security a Cabinet-level department. Ridge spokesman Gordon Johndroe said no decisions have been made by Ridge or Bush on the issue.
A second GOP official with knowledge of the White House review said Bush's advisers have concluded the president could not use his veto authority to block bills making homeland security a Cabinet agency. Doing so, they said, would expose Bush to criticism that he is not doing everything he can to protect the nation against terrorism.
The GOP sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bush may be forced to seek a Cabinet-level bill that suits him best, and they said the White House has several problems with the Lieberman-Graham measure.