WASHINGTON – President Bush's proposed Homeland Security Department is beginning to take shape in the House, where a battery of committees is moving with unusual speed to assemble enabling legislation.
Five committees were set to vote Wednesday on their parts of the Cabinet-level agency, with a similar number expecting to act Thursday. Bush, meanwhile, was planning to meet Wednesday with some of the 170,000 federal workers that would be transferred to the new department.
House leaders are aiming to get a bill creating the agency ready for a floor vote next week. First, though, the pieces must go through a special select committee chaired by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
Armey said Tuesday that the panel would be "respectful" of what the other House committees produce but would act independently. That means any changes approved by the panels could be short-lived.
"We do not feel bound by the chapter and verse details of the president's proposal or of any of the committees," he said. "We think the committees' expertise is going to make the president's proposal an even better proposal."
The Senate is taking a somewhat slower approach even as Democratic leaders aim to get a bill to Bush by mid-September. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., intends to have the Senate version of the proposal on the floor the last week of July.
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said he expected the Senate measure to reflect much of Bush's plan.
"There are some disagreements, but I don't feel they are deep and divisive," Lieberman said.
Also Tuesday, law enforcement officials and the Coast Guard chief told Congress it would be a mistake to split their agencies into pieces, urging instead that lawmakers move them entirely into the new Homeland Security Department.
Officials from the Customs Service, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service and the just-created Transportation Security Administration told a House Judiciary subcommittee that all of their duties are intertwined and some could suffer if not transferred intact to the new agency, as President Bush proposed.
Many members of Congress have the opposite concern. They say an agency like the Coast Guard, which performs such tasks as marine search-and-rescue and fisheries management, might make security such a high priority that the other jobs lose emphasis.
"Some fear that the Coast Guard may be put in a position of compromising your other duties," said Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C.
Adm. Thomas Collins, commandant of the Coast Guard, said dividing the agency's responsibilities between Homeland Security and the Transportation Department would threaten its ability to do any job properly. The same cutters, boats, aircraft and people are involved in all the Coast Guard's tasks, he said.
"Mixing safety and security is not like mixing oil and water," Collins said.
Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner said that shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the heightened focus on security led to 12-hour waits at some U.S. border crossings. Within a week, he said, traffic was essentially back to normal because Customs was able to integrate its commerce and law enforcement components to complete one mission.
"The worst thing you could do is take out the trade functions and leave them behind someplace," Bonner said. "We have to maintain that balance."