By Chris Strohm
February 4, 2009
Senior lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday pledged to complete an authorization bill for the Homeland Security Department in the spring and said the panel will conduct oversight on President Obama's plan to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"What you can anticipate from us is an authorization bill," Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said after the committee's organizational meeting. "Our goal is probably by May 1, something like that, to have a bill done." But, he added, "That could slip based on the legislative calendar."
Republicans want the bill to be done before appropriators set about completing the annual Homeland Security spending bill. They argue that the authorization bill would give direction to appropriators.
Thompson also said the committee will produce a chemical-plant security bill, but he did not provide a time frame for doing so. Homeland Security ranking member Peter King, R-N.Y., said he wants the committee to examine the impact of Obama's policies, including the Guantanamo closure and new rules for detainee interrogations.
"Will that have an impact as far as homeland security?" King asked. "That's an added element."
Thompson said he has instructed committee staff to put together a congressional delegation to visit Guantanamo "to look at what's there, what challenges presently exist, what challenges to the homeland potentially exist with those individuals being housed on the mainland."
The committee adopted its oversight work plan for the year Wednesday, although it is not clear if the plan will be made public. Nonetheless, Republicans complained that the Democratic-drafted plan is void of critical oversight language.
"It appears that on the oversight, we're taking out areas, which could be surrendering jurisdiction," said King, referring to issues Democrats have chosen not to address.
"I know that the committee has the right to go in there anyway, but by taking the language out I think it weakened our position," said Border Subcommittee ranking member Mark Souder, R-Ind. He said this year's oversight plan, compared to last year's, left out language on securing the border, the Coast Guard, dismantling terrorist financing networks and information sharing.
Border Subcommittee Chairwoman Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., countered, "Just because we don't have it in this work plan doesn't mean we aren't going to get some of this done."
Democrats and Republicans alike complained -- for another year -- that the committee does not have complete jurisdiction over the Homeland Security Department. Republicans argue that Democrats are not doing enough to fight to consolidate the committee's jurisdiction.
Thompson said he agreed "there's no question that jurisdiction remains a significant challenge for the committee." But he said he succeeded in getting the Democratic Caucus to adopt rules ensuring that more bills will be referred to the committee.
"To say that we got everything we wanted would not be correct," he acknowledged. "But it was my effort to move the issue forward. It was my effort to bring the challenge that we have as a committee to leadership. And we're working it. And I think you will see more bills referred to the committee because of our work."
By Chris Strohm
February 4, 2009