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House Democrats urge Cabinet-level homeland security agency

House Democrats Tuesday urged Congress to promote Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to a Cabinet level position, contending that statutory authority would improve his ability to coordinate a unified anti-terrorism strategy and secure more federal funding for security needs.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., endorsed legislation proposed by House Intelligence Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee ranking member Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

"The homeland security director should have budgetary ... [and] operational authority," Gephardt said.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Lieberman is planning to mark up similar legislation Wednesday.

Gephardt also said it was "absurd" that the administration has not allowed Ridge to testify before Congress. "It has been nine months after Sept. 11 and Tom Ridge has not brought forth a strategy for homeland security," Gephardt said. "And more than that, he can't come down and talk to us."

Harman said the administration has yet to conduct a national terrorism threat assessment or present a unified anti-terrorism strategy. "Even if he comes up with a strategy six weeks from now, he won't have the clout to enforce it," Harman said.

House Appropriations Committee ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., said President Bush's spending requests have failed to match the administration's public commitment for adequate homeland security funding, and said Ridge must carry more weight with the Office of Management and Budget.

"We need someone with cabinet status in charge," Obey said. "I think Mr. Ridge would have been strong enough to live up to the administration's statement on spending whatever is necessary for homeland security."

Gephardt also said he was not backing off statements he made last week Thursday, when he challenged the White House to be more forthcoming about what intelligence it received before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I'm going forward. I'm 'up-tracking' on what needs to be done," Gephardt said. "This is a failure of our national government, and we've got to do better."