WASHINGTON, June 12 (UPI) -- Key congressional leaders and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge emerged from a White House meeting Wednesday with President George W. Bush and declared a shared sense of urgency and vision to create a Cabinet agency to take the lead in protecting the country from acts of terror domestically.
A draft proposal from the White House was expected possibly as soon as the end of June, and the Senate Government Affairs Committee was aiming to get the proposal out of its hands and ready for floor action by the end of July in time for the agency's creation by Sept. 11, the first anniversary of al Qaida's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
"We are on the same team, which is the way it should be," Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said following the White House meeting. "It is not about politics ... it's about what's right for the American people."
Lieberman, chairman of the Senate's Government Affair's Committee, cautioned, however, that not all the i's may be dotted and all the t's crossed when the agency is established.
"We may not answer this year every question, but we must have an agency," he said.
"We're going to do it. We're going to do it this year."
Both he and Ridge said fine-tuning could take place later.
Among those attending the meeting were chairmen and ranking members of committees which touch on domestic security issues. Attendees included members of both Capitol Hill bodies.
Ridge told reporters that "the sense of urgency and vision is shared."
Earlier in the day, Ridge traveled to Capitol Hill and briefed Congress on Bush's proposal to put border security under a single Cabinet secretary, and received an optimistic reception from most members who attended.
Congressional cooperation will be essential to the success of a plan that would produce the broadest federal restructuring in decades as scores of committees have jurisdiction on the various issues.
"This plan will have to be consistent with the will of the House," Ridge told reporters after the meeting in the Capitol. "I didn't hear a single disagreement with the notion that all of (the homeland security) information should be gathered in one place."
The current proposal by Bush would change a huge chunk of the federal government -- moving dozens of operations from various agencies to a single command -- and thus would affect the jurisdiction of as many as 88 separate congressional committees and subcommittees. Without significant cooperation from lawmakers, the plan would have little chance of implementation.
But a top Republican in the House said the consolidation effort would be enormous, but plausible in the House.
"It will be a lot of heavy legislative lifting, but we can get this done," said Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
Ridge met with about half of the 435 members of the House -- and legislative sources said the group was evenly divided between parties -- to discuss the plan, which has been skeptically received by some members, who would end up losing jurisdiction over the new department.
"It seemed to go well," said a House GOP aide. "The questions seemed more to do with the areas of interest, or expertise, to each member. There was no partisan tone at all."
According to staff who attended, Ridge spoke for about 25 minutes from the well of the House and then took questions from the members for about an hour.
Despite this political comity, however, Democrats continued their criticism of the administration's approach to fighting terror, saying its spending priorities do not reflect its terror-fighting rhetoric.
"The INS last year asked for $52 million to track down illegal entrants to the U.S.," a Democratic staffer said, referring to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "And the president said 'no.' The Department of Energy asked for money to protect nuclear materials and the administration gave them 7 percent of what Secretary (Spencer) Abraham requested. I would ask the president if this is a serious proposal or not. He says it is, but he doesn't seem interested in spending the money needed to set it up."
Earlier in the day, Bush signed legislation designed to improve prevention and responses to bioterrorist acts in the United States.
"Biological weapons are potentially the most dangerous weapons in the world," he said. "Last fall's anthrax attacks were an incredible tragedy to a lot of people in America, and it sent a warning that we needed and have heeded.
"We must be better prepared to prevent, identify and respond," he added.
Shortly after the president spoke, more than a dozen business executives, academics, law enforcement experts and others gathered to begin fashioning a national counter-terrorism strategy involving all levels of government and the private sector. This first meeting of the president's Homeland Security Advisory Council was held in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building next to the White House.
Among the panel was William Webster, former FBI and CIA head; Anthony Williams, mayor of the District of Colombia; James Moore, commissioner of Florida's Department of Law Enforcement; and James Schlesinger, former secretary of energy and defense and current board chairman of the Mitre Corp.
"Today it's Osama bin Laden and al Qaida, but tomorrow there will be others," Ridge said at the beginning of the panel's meeting.
The purpose of the group, created by executive order last March, was to "blaze a trail for the type of relationships we need" between government and the private sector in the face of terrorist threats.
The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were wake-up calls, and continued threats of possible biological attack underline the urgency of preparedness, Ridge said.
Bush said Wednesday that the threat is real and not to be underestimated.
"It's important that we confront these real threats to our country and prepare for future emergencies. ... We must develop the learning, the technology and the healthcare delivery systems that will allow us to respond to attacks with state of the art medical care throughout our entire country," he said.
The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Response Act of 2002 pumps $4.6 billion into producing and stockpiling vaccines against diseases such as smallpox, provides for stricter inspection of food entering the country, and helps states increase security of water sources.
About $1.6 billion is for grants to states to better prepare hospitals for dealing with the casualties resulting from biological, chemical and radiological attacks.
Bush, in the Rose Garden and at the advisers' meeting, stressed the importance of a quick approval for the Department of Homeland Security proposal that Ridge discussed with the House.
He said he realized there would be difficulties "asking people to give up turf."
The proposed department would incorporate sectors of other agencies that deal with security and homeland defense. Congress is considering the proposal, and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., expressed hope that the agency can be created by the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Both Bush and Ridge said there were hopeful signs on Capitol Hill of a bipartisan will to move on the proposal.
"At the end of the day, they (congressional lawmakers) are patriots first," Ridge said at the council meeting. "There is still some heavy lifting, but they're going to get it done."
Ridge will offer a similar briefing to the Senate on Thursday.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the administration had decided against wrapping the FBI and/or CIA into the new department and believed the agencies' internal reorganizations following Sept. 11 were adequate.
Bush said Wednesday that he was taking the case to the American people.
"I'm going to take my case beyond Washington to the real influence peddlers," the American people, he said.