Although the Bush administration staunchly resisted early congressional efforts to create a Cabinet-level homeland security agency--as well as efforts by Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to require Ridge to testify before their committee--GOP sources dismissed notions that the administration had done a turnaround in issuing its own proposal Thursday.
"I don't see it as an about-face, I see it as part of a process," said one GOP aide.
House Intelligence Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who anticipated a "major restructuring of agencies," said only the administration could judge when to ask Congress for greater authority for Ridge's office. "If we had jumped out there early with legislation, we could have made mistakes along the way," Chambliss said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., released a statement saying he found it "encouraging" that Bush planned to make the proposal, and that many in Congress for coordinating domestic security under a Cabinet position, while saying it was "essential" that an independent commission be created to look into the Sept. 11 attacks.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who said White House Chief of Staff Card informed him of the announcement in a telephone call Thursday, said he was eager to work rapidly and with bipartisanship to revamp the nation's homeland security defense and elevate the Office of Homeland Security to a cabinet-level position.
However, Gephardt reminded reporters that Democrats have been pushing for months to give homeland security director Tom Ridge budgetary and statutory authority to prosecute the war on terrorism.
"We're nine and a half months after '9-11.' We have made some progress but not enough," he said. Gephardt said the United States was the "new front" in the war on terrorism.
Key players like Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., said they were only informed Tuesday that the White House planned to make the proposal.
Graham added, "I think it's important to have an agency that is dedicated to homeland security and that doesn't have to go around begging people to make personnel [and] resources available to get the job done."
Some members of Congress said the creation of a new homeland security department could require a shakeup of the congressional committee structure, and several warned of a drawn-out process where overlapping jurisdictions must be overcome.
"There's no question there's territorial imperative," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D- Calif. "I would hope we could put it aside to really do what's best."
A GOP leadership aide said the key issues to be worked out would be which committees would oversee the new agency, which panels would draft new legislating creating it, and which committee would confirm the new director.
"It's a daunting administrative challenge," said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah. "This will take months if not years to finally work."
It is not yet even clear what Senate committee would confirm the new cabinet secretary. A GOP aide noted that the Governmental Affairs Committee has played a prominent role creating "broad-based, cross-cutting cabinet departments." Bennett said the best solution might be to create a new, separate committee on homeland security.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said there is need for a select committee to deal with homeland security issues, so that "old bulls who don't want their turf scratched" can play a role when appropriate.
Sources said Congress will play the main role in drafting whatever legislation is required to restructure the various government functions to go under the authority of the new agency, although the administration is preparing a fairly detailed plan.
"How on earth do you give one person cabinet status and budget authority over the 80 federal agencies that are now involved without involving the Congress?" asked Roberts. "I'm not sure you give [the director] statutory authority to run the entire budget of the United States."
A GOP aide noted that between border security, intelligence, and health functions to be included, 88 congressional committees and subcommittees have some jurisdiction involved in the new agency.
"There's no question this will be one of the most complicated undertakings of legislation in a long time," said the aide, who compared the scope of the effort to President Carter's effort to reorganize the energy industry and President Clinton's major healthcare plan.