WASHINGTON – President Bush briefed members of Congress on the creation of an anti-terror Cabinet post Friday morning, and directed the man currently in charge of homeland security to testify on Capitol Hill as to the wisdom of the proposal.
"I'm going to direct Tom Ridge to testify before Congress about the need for the establishment of this Cabinet agency. I feel strongly that he can represent the interests of the administration on the Hill," Bush said.
Congressmen thanked the president for proposing to elevate the Office of Homeland Security to Cabinet level.
"I commend the president for trying to put an analytical capability in a bold, courageous new department," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., "which we need in order to help citizens of this country to be better prepared."
"It took some pretty bold leadership for him to put this out, and to knock heads together in the Cabinet, and now we've got to do the same thing in Congress," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
Bush's plan, which he detailed in a televised speech Thursday night, would create four major offices in the proposed Department of Homeland Security.
The offices would oversee borders and transportation, coordinate federal, state and local responses to terror attacks, develop methods to detect weapons of mass destruction and create drugs and treatments to deal with the effects of those weapons.
A new intelligence-analysis office would become the "biggest customer" for FBI and CIA data, assessing threats and making plans to counter them.
Enormous structural overhauls would take place, the biggest such reworkings since the end of World War II.
Control of U.S. Customs would be shifted from Treasury to the new department. The Coast Guard, currently under control of Transportation, would also fall under the jurisdiction of Homeland Security, as would a new Transportation Security Administration.
The oft-criticized Immigration and Naturalization Service, now under the aegis of Justice, would also become part of Homeland Security, and so would the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Secret Service, which is currently under the Treasury.
In all, nearly 170,000 federal workers would have a new boss — presumably Ridge — if and when the department is created.
"We've got a lot of work to do to get this department implemented," Bush told the legislators. "There's going to be a lot of turf protection in the Congress. But I'm convinced that, by working together, that we can do what's right for America, and I believe we can get something done."
Ridge said after the morning meeting that Bush was sending him to Capitol Hill to be the advocate for the reorganization.
Democratic senators, especially Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd of West Virginia, have been angry for months that Bush has resisted sending Ridge to the Hill.
The White House has argued that as an adviser to the president, Ridge was not compelled to answer to Congress.
Ridge said despite his new mission, the president wants to preserve that fundamental principle.
"The president believes very strongly," Ridge told reporters outside the White House, "that it is important to preserve the prerogative — not only of this administration but of future administrations — to have advisers to the presidents [who] are accountable to the president accessible to the Congress of the United States as they fulfill their constitutional responsibilities that are not subject to testimony, not subject to the call of the chair."
Asked whether the reorganization would divert badly needed resources from investigating potential terror acts, Ridge replied that it would better to make the changes now than later.
"If you believe that we have an enduring vulnerability," Ridge said, "we have to accept a notion that [that] may be a permanent condition of the 21st century. That calls, in my mind, for the reorganization now."
The president also said the government would save money and effort by combining more than 100 different federal agencies into the Department of Homeland Security.
"You see, when you combine agencies that are scattered throughout the government," Bush said, "there are inherent savings, which means that we're going to be able to have more money on the front line of our homeland security."
No timeline was given for when Ridge would head up to the Hill. Congress must first approve the new Cabinet office by a two-thirds margin.
Bush has set an ambitious date of January to move the agencies into the new department. All of the members appearing at the White House Friday said they would move with alacrity to pass the legislation.
Fox News' Wendell Goler contributed to this report.