WASHINGTON – Gaining fresh pledges of support, President Bush sent to Congress on Tuesday his detailed proposal for creation of a new Homeland Security Department — a 35-page bill that outlines the biggest government reshuffling since 1947.
At a ceremony just off the House floor, White House homeland security chief Tom Ridge handed Republican and Democratic leaders copies of the slim legislation as the Bush administration pressed for passage by fall, perhaps as early as Sept. 11.
Bush said the new agency would form an "organizational foundation for America's triumph in a long and difficult struggle" with what he called the permanent condition of terrorist threats against America. Bush said it was comparable to President Truman's consolidation of the military into a single Defense Department to fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
"Today, our nation must once again reorganize our government to protect against an often-invisible enemy, an enemy that hides in the shadows and an enemy that can strike with many different types of weapons," Bush said.
Lawmakers renewed their promises of support and quick action on a bill that would transfer about 100 federal entities into a single Cabinet agency with an annual budget of over $37 billion and about 170,000 employees.
The White House usually provides Congress with broad concepts rather than detailed legislative language for measures the president wants. This bill was immediately referred to nine House committees and one in the Senate; Ridge is to testify about the plan before House and Senate committees on Thursday.
Given the complexity of the task, several lawmakers said a more realistic date for passage may be by the time Congress adjourns in October.
"We're not going to put haste in the way of doing it right," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Members of the House-Senate intelligence panel investigating what went wrong before last year's terrorist attacks suggested reorganization should wait until a better picture emerges about intelligence failures.
"I do believe we will not be far enough along to provide the advice we'd like to provide," said Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also sounded a cautionary note, saying that safeguarding Americans from terrorism on U.S. soil would take more than shuffling agencies and creating a new federal nameplate. Many Democrats say the administration must follow up with additional money and resources.
"This provides us the tool to get the job done. It doesn't do the job," Daschle said.
Although there appears to be no stopping the bill, there remain a host of questions about how the new agency would function. Leading the list is the president's decision to keep the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies out of the Homeland Security Department, which would still be responsible for analyzing intelligence data.
The legislation expressly provides that the new Homeland Security secretary "shall have access" to all intelligence about terrorism, threats and U.S. vulnerabilities.
Labor unions also renewed their criticism of management-flexibility provisions they said could threaten compensation, benefits and other employee rights in the new department.
"This step threatens the rights of the very people the nation is depending on to make it more secure," said Colleen M. Kelly, president of the National Treasury Employees Union that represents 12,000 Customs workers slated to be moved.
The bill was modified from the initial proposal announced June 6 to address concerns raised by lawmakers and FBI Director Robert Mueller, Ridge said. Key changes include:
— The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California would not entirely become part of the new agency, as initially suggested. A facility based there and at other national labs, including Sandia and Los Alamos, would handle science and technology issues related to homeland security.
— The FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, which protects online commerce and the Internet against attacks, would still be transferred but its FBI agents that investigate crimes would remain within the Justice Department.
— A small office in the National Institute of Science and Technology that figures out encryption, computer security system prototypes and the like would be transferred to the new agency.
— Specialized courts involved with the Coast Guard and the Immigration and Naturalization Service would be moved into Homeland Security.
On Capitol Hill, the House this week planned to move forward with creation of a new select committee to oversee the legislation, which will first move through existing panels. The Senate intends to use its existing structure to consider the plan, beginning with the Governmental Affairs Committee chaired by Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.