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House leaders agree on plan for homeland security process

Republican and Democratic leaders have agreed on a bipartisan plan to move President Bush's proposal to create a new Homeland Security Department through the House on an expedited basis, Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., announced Thursday.

Under the plan, the Government Reform Committee and other panels with jurisdiction over homeland security issues will get first crack at the proposal, while a special, leadership-appointed "ad hoc select" panel-expected to be led by Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas,-will meld the committees' handiwork into a single package.

Sources said the Government Reform Committee and the other panels would have three weeks to work on the legislation, after which the select committee would work on the package for two weeks and then send it directly to the floor, sources said. "There will be regular order for a short period of time, with the committees reporting to an ad hoc committee that will rationalize all of these ideas for leadership," said a GOP source, who added, "This gives the authorizers a bite at the apple and it gives the leaders a chance to rationalize the whole thing."

The House next week will consider legislation creating the select committee, according to a joint statement released by Hastert and Gephardt. Gephardt said, "The speaker and I stand ready to work with the White House and the Senate in a bipartisan way to get this bill done by Sept. 11." But a ranking GOP lawmaker said the Sept. 11 target was probably overly optimistic and that it was "more realistic" to expect the package to come to the House floor the first week in September.

The lawmaker said there had been no suggestion of shortening the House's planned five-week August recess. House GOP leaders have begun to downplay the Sept. 11 date, with Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma today saying the process should not be driven by "artificial deadlines." A spokesman for Hastert said, "We'll try to do it as soon as possible."

The White House today offered Congress a bit of breathing room, suggesting that the bill need not be finished by Sept. 11. "The timing has got to be done right," Fleischer said, suggesting that initial passage-prior to a conference committee-on that date by the House and Senate might be sufficient. But Bush still wants the legislation completed by the end of the year, he said.

Hastert spoke with Gephardt "at least twice" Wednesday on the issue, sources said, and the speaker has conducted a series of meetings with the leadership team over the past 48 hours. "This is on a very aggressive timeframe," according to a leadership aide. Hastert has stressed his desire to stay as close as possible to "regular order" as the legislation moves through the House. At the same time, leaders recognized the need to impose discipline from above on what could become an extremely unruly process. For example, the first notes of discord over jurisdictional matters already have been sounded on issues such as moving the Coast Guard into the new department, according to sources. The question of whether the FBI and CIA should be absorbed, wholly or in part, also is provoking extensive discussion within both House caucuses.

Meanwhile, speaking today at the Eagle Forum summit for college students, Armey expressed concern over the proposed department, saying: "It gives me pause...I won House leadership to subtract chairs from the Cabinet room, not add them." But Armey acknowledged that reform of the existing security apparatus is needed, citing the consolidation of resources, elimination of waste and accountability as objectives of the new office, which he sees as an already done deal.