WASHINGTON – The Senate will open hearings next week on President Bush's proposal for a new Homeland Security Department as congressional leaders pushed on two fronts Thursday for initial passage of legislation creating the agency by the end of July.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, has scheduled a hearing for June 20 with Tom Ridge, the White House domestic security chief who had previously contended that as a presidential adviser he did not have to testify before Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters the White House plan for the new Cabinet department would be handled primarily by Lieberman's committee, which last month approved a similar measure he is sponsoring.
Even though the White House has yet to provide all the details, Daschle said, "I don't know that you need specific language to begin the deliberative process." Daschle set a goal for Senate passage before the August congressional recess, with a final deal with the House possible by September.
Daschle also said he sees no need to change the Senate's committee structure to oversee and provide money for the new department, which could head off turf wars among committee chairmen. He said the Governmental Affairs panel would have the main jurisdiction.
"We're not going to be changing for the foreseeable future to deal with this," Daschle said.
In the House, meanwhile, Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., reached a tentative agreement to form a special committee of six Republicans and five Democrats to handle the White House proposal, according to a congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Gephardt said Thursday that he expected Hastert to announce the deal shortly. "I think we've come up with a good plan," he said.
The leading candidate to chair the panel is House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. Under the plan, which leaders hoped to finalize Thursday, the panel would break the White House package into pieces and give them to existing House committees with a deadline for reporting back.
The select committee then would put the finishing touches on the bill and send it directly to the House floor, the aide said.
Some lawmakers are hearing from business groups concerned that a new domestic security agency could impede commerce at ports and border crossings. Bush's domestic security chief, Tom Ridge, said Wednesday the new department would improve security and "at the same time make sure commercial interaction at the borders is appropriate."
His spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, added that the administration is already working to speed legitimate crossings through advance checks on freight and through companies that do their own employee background checks.
Slowing shipping across borders "absolutely is not going to happen" under a new Homeland Security Department, Johndroe said.
Despite the business concerns, Foley said many lawmakers believe security is more important "than whether some freight gets delayed."
Ridge expects to hear more questions and concerns at a session planned for Thursday afternoon with senators as the administration seeks to quiet skeptics of the proposal. Much of the concern surrounds the authority the department would have over intelligence agencies and how intelligence is shared.
On that issue, Ridge said most lawmakers appear to agree "there ought to be, finally, one place in the federal government where somebody is looking at all the information that is assembled." The new agency, he said, could do that without bringing the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and others under its umbrella.