WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday postponed until Wednesday the vote to confirm Tom Ridge as the first secretary of the newly-created Homeland Security Department.
The vote was delayed by Democrat lawmakers seeking more time to discuss homeland security policy.
Ridge won unanimous approval to ascend to the Cabinet post from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee last Friday. 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 and is expected to come into being on Friday.
Last week, Ridge 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.
Minority Democrats at the hearing were very complimentary to Ridge, but they repeatedly criticized the administration for not doing enough to prevent terrorism.
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 said the new DHS intelligence office will participate at 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.
He also pledged to oversee reforms in border security, restructuring of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, container and port security, and threat analysis.
Wednesday's vote should offer Democrats another opportunity to go after the administration once more and demand changes and additions to homeland security.
On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee is to hear testimony from Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman from Arkansas and director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, on his nomination to be the new department's under secretary for border and transportation security.
The new Department of Homeland Security will combine nearly two dozen agencies with 170,000 employees in an attempt to better coordinate anti-terrorism efforts at home.
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.
Employees transferring from those respective agencies to DHS will not move from their current locations so quickly. A permanent site for the new agency has not yet been decided, and temporary headquarters cannot accommodate all the new department's staff.
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.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.