WASHINGTON – At first blush, Hill members and political analysts gave tentative support to the president's proposal to create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security — the broadest change in U.S. government in over 50 years. But of course, as one observer pointed out, the "devil will be in the details."
The president made the announcement in a nationally televised prime-time speech detailing a new agency that will coordinate the homeland security components of the eight other Cabinet agencies and the current Office of Homeland Security, including intelligence, border security, emergency preparedness, and counter-measures against chemical and biological attacks.
"I think this new agency, whose sole mission will be to protect our homeland, can help overcome the turf wars and inadequate information sharing between agencies that has been the norm for too long," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.
The agency is expected to be "budget neutral," according to White House officials, and will consolidate the aforementioned security responsibilities and take over departments like the Secret Service and Coast Guard, rather than creating new levels of bureaucracy. Some critics were already expressing doubts, however, after Thursday's reports.
"On one hand, it looks like consolidation, but on the other hand I don't think they need another Cabinet post," said Ivan Eland, national security analyst for the Cato Institute. "The danger is it will become another level of bureaucracy."
Others said creating the agency so that it coordinates existing security efforts, rather than making more, is exactly what is needed.
"This is urgent, the administration has said that further terrorist attacks are inevitable and that says to me the sooner we can get this department started, the better off we'll be," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who has been pushing his own proposal for a new Cabinet-level agency in the Senate.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said the new agency would actually help to curb the overlap that now exists. "All too often, homeland security has fallen through the cracks of an overlapping bureaucracy," he said. "The president's proposal is the right response."
Tom Ridge, who heads the OHS, has been working for months with other White House leaders on the plan, according to the White House. But Hill members said they can take credit for pushing the issue on their end, too.
"It's what we in Congress have wanted to do for a long time," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., pointing out there has been movement of legislation through both the House and Senate calling for a new Cabinet agency along these lines. "I think the president has heard us."
Ridge has not been named as an automatic choice for the position of secretary, according to Hill sources, nor has he expressed interest in taking the position. Because he was working as an advisor to the president, and not a Cabinet secretary, the administration has refused to let him testify before Congress, an issue of contention for months.
"Frankly, Congress has been giving Ridge a hard time because he has already been doing the work of a Cabinet secretary while pretending to be merely a staff assistant to the president,” said Norton, noting the growing frustration, mostly among Democrats.
As a Cabinet secretary, whoever heads this new office would be directly accountable to Congress, an important change, observers said Thursday.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle expressed support for this concept Thursday, as information over the proposal's goals was released in private briefings with leadership as well as reporters.
When asked if Ridge would be an appropriate choice for the position of heading the new Cabinet position, most said yes, that he has done a good job so far with what he's had to work with.
"I think the shortcomings that Tom Ridge has show so far have been basically structural, shortcomings from being more or less in the twilight zone, structurally," said Norton.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.