WASHINGTON – Some of President Bush's staunchest Democratic critics appear to be trying to take ownership of the homeland security issue.
Presidential hopefuls Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut took turns bad-mouthing the Bush administration on Tuesday for a proposed budget they said would not give enough money to "first responders" — police, firefighters, paramedics and the like — and workers responsible for shoring up defenses.
In a speech to the International Association of Firefighters, Kerry proposed a $50 billion program that would train members of the National Guard and AmeriCorps to be used homeland security..Kerry's proposal would also overhaul the domestic intelligence system.
"Thus far the federal government has provided too little support, provided too little leadership and provided too little vision for the common defense of our homeland," Kerry said.
Earlier in the day, Kerry issued a statement in response to Bush's Monday night ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He said the U.S. plan for keeping the homeland safe has suffered because of Bush's failed diplomatic efforts regarding the Iraq situation.
"At home, the administration has given too short shrift to the needs of homeland security, ignoring the advice of their own experts, doing the job on the fly and on the cheap," Kerry said.
"To this administration, homeland security is a fine political weapon," he added, "but not high enough a priority to force a reassessment of their tax cuts to the rich and the special interests."
Lieberman, who slapped the White House with similar criticism Monday before the same firefighters' group, on Tuesday used the administration's spending on homeland security to broadside Bush's budget and proposed tax cuts.
Lieberman has called for a $16 billion increase in spending on homeland security in fiscal 2004, including $7.5 billion for police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel — more than Bush's own $3.5 billion plan. Lieberman also said an additional $5 billion was needed in emergency funding this year.
"Enough delays, enough finger-pointing, enough politics," Lieberman said during an address marked by five standing ovations. "Let's put the siren on, run the red lights and get the money to the firehouses."
"All the tough talk about homeland security won't deliver real results unless there's new money for more people, training and technology," he added in a statement.
Lieberman, however, has been supportive of the United States plan to use force to oust Saddam, and he stressed that America must support its troops.
"The question of the moment isn't whether we endorse the foreign policies of the Bush administration. The question is what America and the world will do about Iraq," Lieberman said Monday.
"We cannot and should not allow our broader policy disagreements to become an excuse for avoiding our fundamental constitutional responsibilities to defend American security and the American people," he added.
Political analysts from both parties say it will be tough for Democrats, whether 2004 presidential hopefuls or not, to seize the issue from Bush.
"He holds the cards in that game because he signed the bill, he is the president and he is the commander-in-chief," said Democratic media consultant Jim Duffy. "He tells people, 'I'm doing everything I can to protect this country.'"
In a bipartisan poll released last week, eight of 10 respondents said they think the president protects the United States and its people "well or very well."
The same survey, conducted by the GOP polling firm of Public Opinion Strategies and the Democratic firm of Greenberg, Quinlan and Rosner, asked which political party would do a better job on homeland security. Forty-eight percent said Republicans, while 23 percent said Democrats.
"I don't see how they possibly think they have an ounce of traction today," GOP pollster Bill McInturff said.
Homeland security was once Lieberman's issue. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he, as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, led the charge for consolidating numerous different agencies into a single homeland security department.
Lieberman and other Democrats rallied around "first responders" and argued that not enough was being done to give them the tools they needed.
The White House resisted creating a new homeland security department for months until proposing a major reorganization last spring.
Although Lieberman worked on the Senate floor to see the proposal become law, Democrats tried to undo Bush's clause that excluded departmental personnel from the usual federal-employee unionization and job-protection rules.
The fight dragged on through the November elections, and Bush assailed the Democrats for delaying creation of the Homeland Security Department. Democratic defeats in the Georgia and Missouri Senate races were blamed, in part, on the homeland security issue.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.