- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

Congressional leaders yesterday took the first steps toward swift approval of President Bush's proposal for a new Department of Homeland Security, despite questions about who will lead the agency and an emerging conflict with big labor.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said he will appoint Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, as chairman of a special committee to guide the proposal through the House.

"The American people expect us to move expeditiously on the president's proposal," said Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican. "At the end of the day, we hope to create a department that will make the American people more secure in the American homeland."

In the Senate, the Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, will hold a hearing June 20 on the proposal with Tom Ridge, director of the White House Office of Homeland Security. Majority Leader Tom Daschle said he expects the Senate to approve a plan by its August recess.

But some senators, like Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, said they will not be rushed.

"This package was hatched in secrecy in the bowels of the White House," Mr. Byrd said. "I think we ought to wait and see what the dots are before we try to fill in the pieces."

Mr. Ridge yesterday briefed senators, who asked him if he plans to lead the new agency, which would combine 22 agencies and have a budget of about $37 billion. Mr. Ridge told them only that he has "a job to do" in making sure Congress approves the Cabinet-level department.

"This is just not the time," Mr. Ridge said of such speculation.

Mr. Daschle said the Senate probably would confirm Mr. Ridge if the president nominates him, despite what he called a "troubling" pattern of secrecy at the White House on homeland security.

"I don't think that Mr. Ridge, given the administration's current relationship with this Congress is necessarily any more guilty of this problem than others," Mr. Daschle said. "If you consider the choices, you have to assume that if it isn't Mr. Ridge, it will be somebody like Mr. Ridge. You'd would want to give the benefit of the doubt to any first Cabinet secretary if he was appointed."

But Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said it is "premature" to focus on Mr. Ridge.

"He may decide to go somewhere else," Mr. Lott said. "I think he'd be an excellent choice, but I'm not sure he would want it."

Senators with close ties to labor unions, such as Mr. Lieberman and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, also questioned Mr. Ridge closely about labor's fears that union jobs could be lost in the reorganization.

"We would like to give the new Secretary of Homeland Security maximum flexibility with regard to resources and personnel," Mr. Ridge said. "But obviously, you do have collective-bargaining agreements that presently exist.

"We're going to begin to just sit down and explain and talk to the leaders of these organizations who represent the men and women that work there. We respect the collective-bargaining rights that they have that that are very much a part of their condition at work."

The White House has said the new department will reorganize existing agencies and will not cost the government more money. But Mr. Byrd said that is unlikely.

"We are talking about a brand-new, shiny toy called a department here, and we're not talking about the resources that need to go along with it," he said. "So when are they going to send up the budget for this new department?"

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