Homeland Security Panel Reverses Committee Votes

Despite resistance from key lawmakers, President Bush would win approval of several major pieces of his proposed Homeland Security Department under legislation unveiled Thursday in the House.

There also would be some significant changes in the president's plan for the new 170,000-employee Cabinet agency, according to details of the measure released by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

The legislation, which the House Select Committee on Homeland Security chaired by Armey plans to consider Friday, would place the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Secret Service in the new department.

Each of these agencies had been left out of the plan by one or more House committees in recommendations made last week. Opposition to moving FEMA also arose Wednesday in the Senate, where Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Jeffords said the change would threaten the agency's ability to respond to natural disasters.

"We must preserve FEMA's mission, and the resources and support necessary to carry it out, in any federal government reorganization," Jeffords, I-Vt., said in a letter to drafters of the Senate measure.

But the House select panel's draft bill reflects Bush's view that FEMA, the Coast Guard and Secret Service are "too important to be left out" of an agency dedicated to safeguarding Americans from terrorism, congressional aides said.

Earlier in the day, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., said Bush's new department should get each of these pieces.

"Without these agencies, the Department of Homeland Security won't work," Burton said.

Still, the measure would alter Bush's plan by accepting a Judiciary Committee recommendation to split the Immigration and Naturalization Service into two parts: the enforcement component in the new agency and the other handling immigrant processing within the Justice Department.

Bush wanted the INS moved intact into the new department, but the House earlier this year passed a bill splitting it in two and that remained a top priority for the Judiciary Committee.

The bill also would accept a deal worked out between House leaders and the White House to allow the State Department to continue issuing visas to foreign visitors but give the Homeland Security agency some control over who gets into this country.

The legislation is silent on a dispute between Republicans and Democrats about Bush's request for more flexibility in personnel issues, which critics interpreted as an assault on worker civil service protections and union collective bargaining rights. GOP leaders planned to continue negotiating with Democrats to reach a compromise on that contentious issue.

The measure is likely to undergo still more change as it moves on in Congress, but key lawmakers reached an agreement with the White House permitting Bush some authority to transfer up to 2 percent of the money — with some strings attached — within the agency instead of the 5 percent unilateral power he had sought.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and ranking Democratic Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin both opposed Bush's proposal for unilateral authority.

"In our view, the administration's transfer proposal is overly broad and unprecedented," Young said.

At the White House, Bush told reporters the budget transfer powers could also help reduce transition costs of the huge new department, which have been estimated at $3 billion.

"We're confident that if we're given the management tools necessary, we can effect that ... transition in a cost-effective way," Bush said. "Matter of fact, I think we can save money because of the overlap."

The Armey legislation also would:

— Make clear that exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act intended to protect information the department receives from private industry applies only to Homeland Security, not other federal agencies.

— Ban any effort by the federal government to nationalize drivers' licenses or other identification cards and ensure that the new department cannot promote programs involving Americans spying on one another.

— Transfer the Customs Department to the new agency but leave the Treasury Department in charge of some revenue collection tasks.

— Transfer the portion of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that deals with border entries, leaving much of the agency that deals with such things as pest eradication within the Agriculture Department.