With the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks just around the corner, President Bush on Saturday pleaded his case for a new Homeland Security Department as a way to help the government root out and deal with suspected terrorists in the United States.
"Our homeland is vulnerable to attack, and we must do everything in our power to protect it," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "American needs a single department of government dedicated to the task of protecting our people."
President Bush has proposed the creation of a single Homeland Security Department that would consolidate the many related tasks currently being done by over 40 separate agencies such as the INS, Customs Service and the Border Patrol.
"By ending duplication and overlap, we will spend less on overhead and more on protecting America," Bush said.
But what is essential for this new agency to be able to effectively do its job is the flexibility to respond to terrorist threats quickly, Bush said, "without being forced to comply with a thick book of bureaucratic rules."
Bush said his new agency should have the same flexibility that the FBI, CIA and Transportation Security Administration enjoy when it comes to national security. Bush also emphasized that the department also needs the authority to transfer funds among government accounts in response to terrorist threats - A power various departments such as the Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Energy currently have.
"It seems to me if it’s good enough for these agencies, it should be good enough for the new Department of Homeland Security," Bush said.
The Senate on Tuesday began debating a bill that would create the new department. White House officials are confident that they and Democrats will settle differences over the bill. The House has already passed legislation that would give the new department the power it needs to carry out its mission.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the chief Senate sponsor, called the measure "the single most important thing we can do now" in building better defenses against terrorism within U.S. borders.
But the Senate version of the bill does not give the new department as much leeway as the House-passed version does.
Under the Senate bill, the new department secretary would not as easily be able to shift resources as necessary to respond to terrorist threats, and it could take up to 18 months just to fire an employee. The secretary also would have to ask the president to submit supplemental budget requests to Congress and wait for approval when it needs funding for anti-terrorism activities.
Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge predicted agreement would be reached but warned that Bush will not accept a version of the bill pushed by Senate Democrats. Bush says that bill would deny the president the flexibility needed to manage an agency of roughly 170,000 employees and would weaken his authority to prohibit collective bargaining when it in the interest of national security.
Another possible hang-up for the bill is the issue of whether the workers of the new agency should be unionized.
"Senators need to understand I will not accept a homeland security bill that puts special interests in Washington ahead of the security of the American people" Bush said in his address. "I will not accept a homeland security bill that ties the hands of this administration or future administrations in defending our nation against terrorist attacks."