Bipartisan group pushes for homeland security department

A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers on Thursday introduced a bill to establish a Cabinet-level Department of National Homeland Security and a White House Office of Combating Terrorism, despite not having obtained White House backing for the idea.

Within the department, an office of science and technology would act as an interagency clearinghouse for new technologies to assist in improving homeland security. The tech office would be authorized at $200 million in fiscal 2003 to accelerate research, development, testing and evaluation of security technologies.

"All of us have people coming to us with great ideas," Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said at a news conference. "We need to sort out the good from the bad and get it to the 'first responders' " to emergencies.

The department would consist of the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office, the National Infrastructure Protection Center, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Customs Service, the enforcement branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard and other agencies.

The bill represents an amalgamation of bipartisan efforts that have been developing on both sides of Capitol Hill, though the tech clearinghouse is a new component. Co-sponsors of the legislation include: Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.; Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; and Bob Graham, D-Fla.; and Reps. Jane Harman and Ellen Tauscher, both California Democrats; and Jim Gibbons, R-Nev. All of the sponsors serve on key defense or intelligence committees.

Establishment of the office would help bring accountability for the nearly $38 billion and growing that Congress has approved for homeland security, the sponsors said. The bill also would make it possible for Congress to summon White House Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to testify.

The measure would give Ridge the statutory and budgetary authority he needs to accomplish homeland security goals, Lieberman said.

The bill did not move last year, at the request of President Bush, but sponsors said Congress should not wait any longer. "The reintroduction of this bill on a bipartisan basis has traction," Harman said.

Lieberman said he is "encouraged" by indications of support from Ridge and the White House. In a late-morning briefing, Ridge said the White House has not closed any doors on the issue.

The creation of the position seeks not only to address coordination in the domestic terrorism fight but also the ever-present government turf fight, members said.

"The most important parlor game in Washington is the game of 'turf war,'" said Gibbons, citing maneuverings in the defense, justice and intelligence communities. "This bill is going to give [Ridge] the vested authority he's going to need to fight that turf war."

Graham graded the performance of Ridge's office after six months. He said it scored fairly well on influence over the budget, though Ridge does not decide how to spend the money, and access to key officials, though he has failed to convert his personal relationship with the president into action.

Graham also noted that while Ridge's office is in the White House, his staffers, many of whom are temporarily on loan from other agencies, are located elsewhere in Washington.

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