Ridge: Bush should veto Cabinet-level homeland security office

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said Thursday he would advise President Bush to veto any legislation creating a congressionally authorized Office of Homeland Security if Congress approves a bill this year.

"I'd probably recommend he veto it," Ridge told a National Journal Group editorial board meeting. In the past, Ridge has asked Congress to hold off on the legislation.

Today's comments were the first time Ridge has said he would recommend a presidential veto. Ridge said presidents should be "entitled to a few advisers" who owe their loyalty solely to the president.

"I believe that the president and future presidents always would be well served having an adviser coordinating the actions among [the] multiple agencies" charged with protecting homeland security. "I don't think you get that if you are accountable to Congress," Ridge said.

While the Homeland Security director should be "accountable" to the president, he or she should be "accessible" to Congress, he said. Ridge said he has visited Capitol Hill 50 times since Sept. 11 to brief legislators on the Bush administration's efforts to head off future terrorist attacks.

Ridge's comments came as key members of Congress ramp up efforts to approve legislation that would create a full-fledged Cabinet-level position for homeland security.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., plans to mark up legislation this summer. On the other side of the Capitol, Reps. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, back a companion bill. However, the likelihood of a veto makes it less likely the legislation will pass this year.

Many lawmakers believe legislation would give Ridge the power he needs to coordinate homeland security measures across a broad range of departments and agencies. Today, Ridge said he has "great authority, access and power…to get the job done that the president wants me to get done. I may not have the authority [for the job] that the Congress wants me to get done. There's a big difference."

While Ridge acknowledged that the debate over a statutory position is inevitable, he sought to turn the tables on Congress by urging legislators to approve a number of pending measures that would boost homeland security. He singled out the supplemental appropriations bill and the administration's fiscal 2003 budget, both of which contain key homeland security items.

"We can argue about whether I have statutory authority or should testify," Ridge said, but Congress should move to approve the supplemental measure and the budget. "To my friends in Congress," Ridge said he would say: "Let's move things quicker…[Let's] get things done."

On another issue, Ridge said he plans to submit a list of recommendations to Bush "on or about" July 1 to coordinate homeland security measures among federal and state governments. He said the plan would be a "road map" for how federal and state governments should "think and operate" in an age of heightened security.

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