Turf battle is on in Congress over new homeland defense agency

President Bush's decision to try to unify a wide range of homeland security responsibilities under one Cabinet agency has touched off a turf squabble in Congress over which committees should oversee the new department.

"I'm sure there'll be 10 different committees that will want to have a piece of the action," said Senate GOP Policy Committee Chairman Larry Craig of Idaho.

Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., added senators with competing jurisdictions already are jockeying for position.

"People are already saying --'That ought to be in my jurisdiction,'" Lott said. "There will have to be a period of assessing where the proper jurisdiction is."

In a nationally televised address Thursday night, Bush called on Congress to restructure the government by creating a Department of Homeland Security.

In a 13-minute speech, Bush warned that "thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us."

As outlined by Bush, the new agency would acquire $37 billion and 170,000 employees from the agencies that it would absorb.

A dispute is already emerging over which congressional panel should authorize the creation of the new agency--handling issues ranging from border security to bioterrorism and some intelligence functions--and then oversee its operations.

Lott said his "automatic, internal, visceral reaction" was that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee ought to take the lead in creating the new agency. The panel has played a prominent role in other agencies with a broad scope.

Senate Judiciary ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said his committee--rather than the Governmental Affairs panel--should have the primary responsibility.

"It's still a domestic law enforcement approach," Hatch said. "Naturally, I'd assume the Judiciary Committee would be the committee" to oversee the agency, he said.

Hatch said it would be best for one committee--his own--to have jurisdiction, rather than several panels overseeing a part of it.

Others on Capitol Hill are calling for creating an entirely new authorizing committee to oversee the agency--an idea Hatch dismissed.

"I don't think we need any more committees," he said.

A GOP aide speculated about an institutional bias against such an approach, as current chairmen argue against anything that would dilute their authority.

Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said he assumes his panel would have jurisdiction over the "adoption" of the agency. As for later oversight, "Once it's created, that's an interesting question," he said. "I'm not asserting jurisdiction for my committee over the department."

However, ranking member Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., was adamant that the panel should have jurisdiction.

"It's the creation of a new department, and that's the heart of that committee's jurisdiction, it seems to me," Thompson said.

Lieberman and Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Bob Graham, D-Fla., already have a bill pending before the Governmental Affairs panel to create a new Cabinet agency, and Lieberman said the administration's new plan includes many of his proposals.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said Congress might have to restructure its committees to mesh with a revamped administration.

"There will be a new authorizing committee on homeland security," he said, "and it may well be a House-Senate committee. This is an issue of war, and I think we might want to take a creative look at it."

Gregg said a "hybrid" committee between the two chambers might be the best way to sidestep jurisdictional squabbles and provide comprehensive oversight.

Gregg, who is ranking member of the Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations Subcommittee, said a good argument could be made for creating an entirely new appropriations subcommittee to fund the new department to better align with the administration.

"I don't think you're going to want to appropriate a new agency out of six or seven different subcommittees" that already have jurisdiction, Gregg said.

However, if Appropriations panel leaders opt to stick with the committee's current subcommittee configuration, Gregg said his own panel is best suited to handle the new agency.

"If we're going to stay within the 13 appropriations subcommittees, it's logical, since we've got State, Commerce and Justice, we'd probably pick up more of it than anybody else."

Another contender for chief jurisdiction could be the VA-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, where Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., is ranking member.

Specter, who serves on Appropriations and Judiciary committees, warned: "I think homeland security is too important to be playing turf battles. My hunch is that it's going to be handled expeditiously."

Craig called for action during this session of Congress. Specter and Lieberman both are scheduled to attend a White House meeting with the president this morning to discuss the administration's proposal.

As similar questions confronted leaders in the House, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma met briefly Thursday afternoon to consider the implications. They agreed only to make decisions soon.

Emerging from the meeting, Hastert acknowledged the proposal would raise jurisdictional questions but said he first wanted to study Bush's proposal.

"It's something we have to sit down and talk about," Hastert said. Asked about the possibility of a new House Appropriations subcommittee, Hastert said there was "nothing to even talk about yet."

Hastert said the House would have to take up Bush's proposal immediately. "It's something he'll want us to get done this year."

After the meeting Armey downplayed the suggestion the new Homeland Security Department would touch off a series of turf battles and force some committees to give up jurisdiction.

"That's not altogether true. We haven't examined that," Armey said. "Right now, that's all under the heading of 'things to look at.' "

An aide for the House Government Reform Committee said Thursday that his panel would likely be the primary jurisdiction for implementing Bush's proposal, but other committees also might have jurisdiction over the process.

"It's something we've done a fair amount of work on ... because we knew there were going to be these sort of organizational changes," the aide said.

Watts also renewed his call for establishing a select House committee or task force to coordinate the House's homeland security work.

"You have all of these committee that have overlap on homeland security," Watts said. "There's no organization. We have had 125 hearings since Sept. 11, and there's no coordinated strategy."

In the Senate, Lott said he and Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., probably would need to meet to help broker competing jurisdictional claims. But Daschle, who was out of town Thursday attending his son's graduation from law school, will have to weigh in.

"Sooner or later, the majority leader is going to make a choice," Lott said. "He's got to say, 'You're the lead committee.' "