Ridge briefs small group of senators on homeland security

Turnout by senators was somewhat sparse Thursday for an informal discussion today with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge about the Bush administration's views on border security, and at least one Democratic senator admonished Ridge for failing to have appeared in a more formal setting.

Ridge, who told senators his aim was to create a "smart, 21st century border," offered broad and unremarkable responses to the senators' questions--many of which focused on state-specific interests and concerns.

Senate Judiciary ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who organized the meeting, asked Ridge whether the administration had any "preference" with respect to border agency reorganization. Ridge said "a full range of options" was under discussion internally, including "everything from completely revamping the technological infrastructure" for better information sharing to putting in place "a very muscular border control agency." Ridge added that, "No final recommendation has been made to the president."

The bottom line, Ridge added, is "will it affect the safety of America?" He acknowledged that a "broad reorganization" would necessitate Congress' cooperation, not only legislatively, but because such changes are likely to affect committee jurisdictions, Ridge noted.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who described the meeting as a "press conference," admonished Ridge that "it doesn't take the place of coming before our committees."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who did not attend because he was chairing another hearing at the time, criticized Ridge's decision to brief senators in a private meeting rather than testifying before the Appropriations Committee on "the very same day" that Byrd and Appropriations ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, had asked him to testify.

"It's obvious that this is a stunt," he said.

Byrd said the committee was trying to help the administration with its supplemental appropriations request, but that "the very person who is the president's point man--Mr. Ridge--is the person that we want before the committee … and we don't have the benefit of the knowledge of Mr. Ridge's plans."

Byrd continued: "I think it's tacky, and the only thing we can do is just move right ahead. The American people are the people who are being treated as fools, and they are not fools."