WASHINGTON – President Bush put members of Congress on notice Wednesday that he is going to take his case for a department of homeland security straight to their constituents.
Bush met with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and the president's homeland security advisory council about his plan to reorganize 22 agencies into one Cabinet-level department that would oversee 170,000 employees and a $37 billion budget, saying he doesn't want partisanship, but he does want the use of his bully pulpit.
"I'll also remind the Congress that I am going to speak to the American people about this issue," he said. "Once I propose it, I'm going to take my case beyond Washington to the true influence — the real influence peddlers of America; that's the American people, the people who work every day and who've got the capacity to inform their members of Congress or the Senate their opinion. And that's what I'm going to continue to do."
Bush's 16-member homeland security advisory council includes former Defense and Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, former CIA and FBI Director William Webster, Ambassador Paul Bremer, who heads the congressionally-appointed National Commission on Terrorism, Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and former Democratic representative from Indiana Lee Hamilton.
The president made it clear that he's well aware that his reorganization plan asks the capital's political animals to act against their nature by giving up power and turf.
As for how the legislature divvies up the homeland security pie, the White House said that is for Congress to decide.
"It's not the habit of the president to tell the Congress how it needs to structure itself," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "For one, in terms of how to receive this proposal, or two, whether the Congress itself needs to change its committee jurisdictions, on appropriation or other committee and subcommittee jurisdictions, if and when this department is created. That's a matter for the legislature to deal with."
During the meeting, the president was not so bold as to leave the impression that the war in Afghanistan, where U.S. and other troops are breaking down the remaining Al Qaeda network, has completed its mission.
Starting out the meeting in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building just across the driveway from the White House, Bush said, "We've won" the battle in Afghanistan, but then quickly corrected himself to say "We're winning" that battle.
"We won the first battle, or we're winning the first battle in the war of the 21st century, which was in Afghanistan, and we went into that country not as conquerors, but as liberators," he said.
The president's remarks came shortly after he signed into law the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Response Act of 2001, which allocates $4.3 billion over the next two fiscal years to increase vaccine stockpiles, beef up security at laboratories and protect the food and water supply.