Congress will give Ridge more time

By MARK BENJAMIN  |  Oct. 30, 2001 at 7:14 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- In response to a recent request from President George W. Bush, Congress will temporarily delay plans to hand Homeland Defense Director Tom Ridge more power at the White House, said Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

But legislators from both parties said they will ultimately push legislation concentrating government power to fight terrorism under one roof, streamlining what they said can be disjointed and poorly coordinated activities sprinkled across a number of federal agencies.

Members of both parties said Bush made the request in a meeting last week with a small group of lawmakers to discuss security issues, and Congress is now likely to hold off on that legislation until next year. Bush has asked for time to see how the current arrangement works, established under a presidential executive order.

"The president has asked that the Congress defer action on that until the immediate crisis has waned," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., said about the meeting with Bush. "I think that is a reasonable request. My thought is that we ought to let the current office continue for the next few months."

But Graham and other lawmakers predicted that Congress would eventually have to hand Ridge or his successor real power, such as the authority to control government budgets, that only Congress can convey.

"At the appropriate time, we clearly will have to make some decisions about giving budget authority to the director," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. "It is a question of when."

Some lawmakers have worried that Bush's executive order fails to give the new office any real authority. Instead, Ridge might face the losing side of a political turf battle with the departments of Justice, Defense and other agencies. White House critics have said a lack of coordination has hampered the government's response to the spreading anthrax scare.

"You have to have Ridge doing some budgetary things," said Bob Weiner, former spokesman of Clinton administration drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey. That post also requires the coordination of activities across different federal agencies.

In the House, Reps. James Gibbons, R-Nev., and Jane Harman, D-Calif., have also drafted a bill to allow Ridge to control anti-terrorism budgets in federal agencies across the federal government.

And Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., have a bill that would establish an entirely new Cabinet-level Department of National Homeland Security, consisting of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Customs Service, Border Patrol, Coast Guard and other agencies.

"Gov. Ridge is a terrific choice to head the new Office of Homeland Security," Lieberman said at an Oct. 12 hearing on homeland defense. "But he has not been given the power he needs to ensure that he will get the job of homeland security done."

Lieberman has not agreed to any delay on legislation designed to better coordinate government efforts against terrorism, according to his office.

But for now, Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Congress is likely to hold off.

"The president basically said to us, give us a chance to let this work," Shelby said.

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