FEMA, ICE nominees pledge to focus on agency performance

FEMA Director nominee Craig Fugate FEMA Director nominee Craig Fugate Scott Audette/AP File Photo

Key members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee endorsed President Obama's choices to lead the Homeland Security Department's Federal Emergency Management Agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau at a wide-ranging confirmation hearing on Wednesday aimed at exploring the candidates' views on several contentious issues.

In expressing support for Craig Fugate and John Morton, tapped to lead FEMA and ICE, respectively, senators praised their long experience and qualifications for the posts. Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, has more than two decades of experience responding to major disasters at the state and local levels. Morton is a career federal prosecutor who began as a trial attorney for the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Some lawmakers have proposed taking FEMA out of Homeland Security and making it an independent agency, a move Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the committee, opposes. When Lieberman asked Fugate if he believed FEMA should remain part of Homeland Security, Fugate said yes. "FEMA needs to focus on its primary mission" of being ready for the next disaster and continuing recovery operations from previous disasters, namely Hurricane Katrina, which devastated much of the Gulf coast in 2005, he said.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said while FEMA has made considerable progress in reforming failed processes and programs since Katrina, the agency has a long way to go. "I'm convinced you're the right person for this job," she told Fugate, echoing the sentiments of other lawmakers present.

In questioning Morton, senators were especially concerned about recent reports that ICE is not coordinating operations on the country's southwest border with other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Morton said he was aware of the problems and a top priority would be to solve the jurisdictional issues among the agencies. "As a federal prosecutor I'm very familiar with the issue of turf wars. I don't think they have a place in the federal government as a general matter, and I particularly don't think they have a place on the southwest border," he said.

Both nominees expressed concern about low morale in the agencies they would lead.

"The most important thing is to give people a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, telling them when they fall short and recognizing them when they succeed," Fugate said.

He said a top priority would be to ensure top leadership positions in the agency are filled by qualified, experienced professionals.

Morton stressed the importance of improving management at ICE and making the agency an "attractive and exciting" place to work where employees receive adequate training and clear guidance. "As a lifelong federal employee I feel a duty to [the workforce]," he said.

The agency is still relatively young -- it was created in 2003 when Homeland Security was stood up -- and lacks mature management controls over some of its programs, Morton said, an area he would work to rectify.

His top goals will be to improve border security and remove aliens who pose a threat to national security or public safety, he said.

Both Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee's ranking member, said they would support the nominees. Lieberman said the full Senate likely would vote to confirm them next week.

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