WASHINGTON – The Senate made history Wednesday when it unanimously voted to confirm Tom Ridge as the first secretary of the newly-created Department of Homeland Security.
The vote was 94-0 with six senators abstaining. It was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but was delayed by Democrat lawmakers seeking more time to discuss homeland security policy.
A DHS spokesman said homeland security officials are pleased the Senate acted so quickly so Ridge can be sworn in on Friday, when the department officially comes into existence.
Ridge is "more excited than ever," the spokesman said. "He's devoted the last year-and-a-half of his life to homeland security and now he has the ability to do that in a new department."
Sources tell Fox News that the administration's plan, subject to change, is to have Vice President Dick Cheney swear Ridge in in the Oval Office on Friday and to have a news conference shortly thereafter.
President Bush applauded the vote.
"With today's historic vote, the Senate has demonstrated our shared commitment to doing everything we can to secure our homeland," Bush said in a written statement.
"Secretary Ridge is an outstanding and dedicated public servant who understands my administration's top priority always will be the protection of the American people, and I look forward to continuing to work closely with him to fulfill this important responsibility."
Before Wednesday's vote, senators challenged Ridge to be accountable for protecting civil liberties as he embarks on the difficult task of protecting the nation from terrorists.
"It is essential that Gov. Ridge understand that he will be responsible not only for defending the homeland, but also for defending against the abuse of power within the new department," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
The former Pennsylvania governor will be assuming "a Cabinet post that may well be the most challenging position created by Congress during the last 50 years," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
While senators took their turn voicing support for Ridge, Democrats blasted the administration for not giving the new DHS the same resources it would give agencies such as the Defense Department, and for not paying enough attention to homeland defense needs at the state and local level.
"This man needs the tools to do this job," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
Congress needs to make sure it invests money in items such as nuclear, border and port security, Dorgan said, as well as making sure officials have access to terrorist-watch lists.
"You can't do that on the cheap," Dorgan said. "One day, another terrorist act may occur because of something we failed to do here … and it will be pointed out as a flaw in this system … let's make these investments now."
"States and localities are in desperate need of additional new resources to help prepare their police, their fire and emergency personnel for any future terrorist attack," Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said in debate Tuesday night.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said his "one very consequential concern" is that DHS won't be allocated enough resources.
Daschle said agencies such as the Defense Department have been given a budget boost since Congress realized it can't fight the war on terror at home or abroad without additional resources. Therefore, Daschle said, he's "troubled" that the DHS doesn't have "the same degree of support," commitment or resources "it must have to deal with the challenges and the resources it needs to complete its mission."
Daschle blasted Bush for not pushing harder for the $2.5 billion he originally promised to states and localities for their homeland defense efforts.
"In spite of what we all profess to be our goal, there is a lack of willingness ... on behalf of the administration to meet that goal," Daschle said, noting that the budget Bush is proposing cuts funding for CIA, FBI and Customs agents and inspectors. "You can't have security without resources."
Daschle said that Ridge should return to the Congress with a plan that "will convince not only us but the American people that he will have the resources" to do his job.
Collins responded by pointing out just how much money was going toward security tasks mentioned by Democrats. She added that "we are making a significant commitment" to homeland security, and that more resources will be considered as part of Bush's budget, which the Senate will continue to debate later Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee will hear testimony from Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman from Arkansas and director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, on his nomination to be the DHS undersecretary for border and transportation security.
There will be four other undersecretaries in the department who will head up divisions focusing on science and technology, first responders, intelligence, and budget and management issues.
Ridge, whose confirmation was no surprise, takes over a newly created department that is still without a headquarters. The department won't assume operational control of the agencies until March 1 and it will be months before it is fully functioning.
The new agency, passed into law by Congress last November, will be the largest overhaul of the federal government since the creation of the Defense Department in 1947. It will combine nearly two-dozen agencies with 170,000 employees.
Folded into DHS 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 won unanimous approval from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee last Friday. He then told committee lawmakers that the nation is safer than it was on Sept. 11, 2001, but that more work needs to be done to protect the country from terrorism.
"We face a hate-filled, remorseless enemy that takes many forms, has many places to hide and is often invisible," Ridge said, adding that it will be his agency's everyday mission to make sure that enemy intentions are thwarted.
Lawmakers were piqued by the administration's opposition to adding $5 billion to protect port and nuclear facilities to the $390 billion spending bill currently under debate. Republicans defeated the amendment last Thursday on a party-line vote.
Democrats also 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," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. 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."
Ridge pledged to oversee reforms in border security, restructuring of the INS, container and port security, and threat analysis, and said the civil liberties of Americans would not be compromised.
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 of Pennsylvania in 1994. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush asked him 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.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge and Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.