WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge won approval of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday to ascend to a Cabinet position where he will lead the struggle to protect the nation from a "hate-filled, remorseless enemy."
In a closed-door voice vote Friday afternoon, the panel approved President Bush's pick of Ridge to head up the newly created Homeland Security Department, sending the confirmation to the Senate floor for a vote.
"We have a long journey to undertake," Ridge told the committee earlier Friday. "But everyday that is our mission — that when we turn off our lights and leave the office at night, the world is safer."
Ridge terrorism threatens "the foundations of our nation."
"We face a hate-filled, remorseless enemy that takes many forms, has many places to hide and is often invisible," he said.
At the confirmation hearing, Ridge was required to answer questions from minority Democrats on the committee, who want a progress report on what's already been accomplished, a set of objectives to measure how the new agency is doing and to know how much it's all going to cost.
Criticism of Ridge was tepid, although several Democratic senators are piqued by Thursday's 51-45 vote not to provide an additional $5 billion to protect ports and nuclear facilities to the $390 billion spending bill under debate.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., stressed to Ridge on Friday that as a Cabinet secretary, he will have strong budget authority. He and other Democrats emphasized that improving the nation's intelligence systems must be of paramount importance to the Homeland Security secretary.
We're "operating in a virtual intelligence vacuum," Lieberman said. Since Sept. 11, "the administration has thus far failed to challenge or ultimately change the status quo of the intelligence community to fix what was broken."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said, "We have some repairs to make in the underlying legislation" guiding the new department. He said Congress needs to make sure that the homeland security bill includes whistleblower protections, clarifies Freedom of Information Act laws so Americans can have easy access to unclassified information and provides a central office in DHS where state and local officials can go for information.
Ridge promised to prioritize those issues and pledged to oversee reforms in border security, restructuring of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, container and port security, and threat analysis.
He said the new DHS intelligence office will participate with all levels with the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and other intelligence corners — both domestic and foreign — "to get the intelligence we need to get the job done."
At the same time, he promised that Americans' civil liberties would not be compromised.
"Any new data-mining technologies or programs to enhance data sharing or collecting must and will protect the civil right and civil liberties of our people under the constitution," Ridge said.
Many new technologies the administration has tried to use to fight the war on terror and to increase surveillance have been blasted by civil liberties and privacy groups who say they impede citizens' privacy rights.
Ridge also promised to mandate regular progress reports from all facets of the agency, since "we also need to know how effective we've been."
The creation of the new Homeland Security Department represents the largest federal reorganization since the Defense Department was set up in 1947.
Bush tapped the former Pennsylvania governor to lead DHS in November, when he signed legislation creating the department. It will combine nearly two dozen agencies with 170,000 employees in an attempt to better coordinate anti-terrorism efforts at home.
Senior transition officials with DHS have wanted to get Ridge's confirmation and that of his deputy, Gordon England, through the Senate before Jan. 24, the day the department officially comes into being.
Another key date is March 1, when Ridge and his immediate staff are hoping to be set up in their Washington headquarters. Officials are still looking for a permanent site in Washington, but temporary digs are expected to be established at several sites throughout Fairfax County in Northern Virginia.
However, on March 1, employees from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will start reporting to DHS, even though their offices will remain within FEMA.
As one official said, some "employees may be in the same place five to 10 years from now."
There will be five undersecretaries in the department who will head up border/transportation security, science and technology, first responders, intelligence and budget and management issues.
Folded into the department will be FEMA, the Secret Service, Coast Guard, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Transportation Security Administration and the General Services Administration's federal protective services.
Ridge, 57, winner of a Bronze Star for valor in the Vietnam War, was elected to Congress in 1982 and served for 12 years. He was elected governor in 1994. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush asked Ridge to head the new White House Office of Homeland Security.
In that job, Ridge won praise for improving communication between Washington and local governments. He got mixed reviews for devising of a color-coded national warning system to help Americans understand the seriousness of terrorist threats.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said Ridge's experience qualifies him for the new post and it was likely Ridge would be confirmed by a large margin.
But Daschle also said he first wanted Ridge to give an update on anti-terrorism efforts and to set out "a definitive set of goals that we can gauge progress against as time goes by."
Fox News' Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.