WASHINGTON – Sen. Robert Byrd accused the Bush administration of withholding information about the White House anti-terrorism strategy, endangering Americans who depend on information from Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.
"Director Ridge is not here, nor does he plan to be here. Unfortunately, the real losers are the American people whose lives this government is trying to protect. They are not being given the whole picture. They are not being told the whole strategy," Byrd, D-W.Va., told a Senate Appropriations Committee that he chairs.
The committee was convened to hear from three Cabinet secretaries on their plans to prevent terror. Ridge, who works as a presidential adviser and is not a Senate-approved policy-maker, has refused to testify on the grounds that it is an intrusion into the authority of the executive branch.
Ridge has offered to informally meet with lawmakers and has done so more than three dozen times, but Byrd, and co-chairman Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said he ought to come before the full committee to answer questions publicly.
Byrd said that Congress will have trouble approving the Homeland Security Office budget without hearing from Ridge.
"I've made no threats, I've made no partisan statements," Byrd said. "I simply can't understand the arrogance on the part of an administration that will not assist Congress. We need Mr. Ridge."
Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman all were lined up to address Tuesday's hearing on what they anticipate their budget needs will be to fight terror.
Powell attempted to assuage Byrd about Ridge's absence, saying the administration is committed to cooperating with Congress about its needs.
"The administration is committed to ensuring that you and the Congress receive the appropriate information on what we are doing to improve, enhance and ensure the protection of our homeland," Powell said in his written statement.
O'Neill said he was not in competition with other agencies for anti-terror funding.
"I honestly don't see the Treasury Department in some kind of horse race with the Justice Department" for funds, O'Neill said, referring to suggestions that he might demand more money for the Customs Service, which operates out of the Treasury Department.
Congress is deliberating a $27.1 billion emergency supplemental package proposed by President Bush last month to pay for additional Defense Department and domestic security for fiscal year 2002. It includes money requested for better aviation security, aid to help New York rebuild from the Sept. 11 destruction of the World Trade Center towers, and financing to help U.S. allies battle terrorism abroad.
Byrd and other Democrats would like to increase that sum for more security programs, but the White House, faced with a looming budget deficit, wants to hold the line on spending. It has already asked for $38 billion for domestic security for the next fiscal year, nearly twice what lawmakers have approved so far.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is scheduled to appear at another Senate Appropriations hearing May 7. State and local officials testified earlier in April.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.