WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday that would create a Department of Homeland Security, a Cabinet-level post that would be made up of agencies like the Coast Guard and the Customs Service.
Lawmakers argue the legislation would give the homeland security director the tools he needs to get the job done.
"It has become clear to many of us — perhaps even to him — he lacks necessary authority to accomplish what needs to be done," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said of current director Tom Ridge. "This job requires administration teeth but as currently configured it is likely to get bitten by existing bureaucracy."
The administration has argued that as an adviser to the president, Ridge does not have to answer to Congress.
President Bush has left open the possibility of elevating Ridge's post, but GOP sources say he has some qualms about the Lieberman-sponsored bill. For one, he is reluctant to move Ridge — literally — from his post a few steps from the Oval Office.
The bill comes the same day the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing in which he took aim at the Bush administration for allowing Ridge to informally brief senators on the same day that he refused to formally testify at the committee hearing.
"Instead of allowing Director Ridge to testify before this committee, the administration would rather trivialize homeland security with these made for television stunts," said chairman Robert Byrd, D-.W.Va.
The made-for-television stunt that Byrd is referring to was the informal, public question and answer session by Ridge for congressional members organized under the auspices of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
At the Q&A, the tone was laid back, the questions not pointed. Ridge spoke at length about border issues, including the Coast Guard and Customs Service patrols.
Hatch said the timing of the session was appropriate because the House had recently passed legislation that would abolish the Immigration and Naturalization Service and create two new bureaus — one for administrative services, the other for enforcement.
During the session, Ridge repeated his claim that as an adviser to the president, he is traditionally not obligated to testify before Congress.
"I have been and will continue to be accessible to the Congress of the United States. I understand the need for information, the power of the purse strings, the congressional responsibility, but I think the way the president has designed the office and given responsibility and opportunity to coordinate is precisely what would serve future presidents as well," he said.
Ridge or his aides have met with lawmakers more than 150 times since he took office last October to form a strategy to prevent a future Sept. 11. But as one congressional aide put it, having the president's ear only gets one so far in Washington. The true measure of personal success for Ridge will be having a budget of his own and line authority to get the job done.
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.