- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Senate Democrats renewed their call yesterday for Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to testify before Congress despite President Bush's insistence that Mr. Ridge is a confidential adviser who should not be put under oath.

"I'm still wondering what it is about Mr. Ridge's job that would keep the administration from wanting him to come to the Capitol to talk about the many responsibilities he has," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. "What is it that he's doing that's so secret?"

Meanwhile, lawmakers yesterday scheduled action for April 9 on a bill to reform the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the wake of the disclosure that the INS recently sent notice that it had granted student visas for two terrorists who piloted the jets that crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11.

The bill would abolish the INS and create an agency to handle border security and enforcement and another agency to provide immigration and naturalization services.

"I believe that this incident is symptomatic of deep-rooted problems within the INS, and I am gravely concerned that those problems have rendered the INS unable to identify alien terrorists in the United States effectively," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican.

Mr. Daschle cited the incident this week as an example why lawmakers need to hear from Mr. Ridge about homeland security plans. Mr. Daschle met with his committee chairmen Wednesday and said they agreed to "ramp up" their pressure to compel Mr. Ridge to testify about his office's budget.

Senate Democrats do not appear ready to issue a subpoena for Mr. Ridge but are considering options that include passing a resolution and approving a law that would require congressional oversight of the homeland security office.

Mr. Bush said this week that Mr. Ridge is part of his staff and therefore should not be required to testify before Congress.

Mr. Ridge has visited with lawmakers informally, and an administration official said yesterday that he has offered to meet with Mr. Daschle numerous times but Mr. Daschle has always been busy. The official said the two men finally did speak on the phone a few weeks ago.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, and the ranking Republican, Ted Stevens of Alaska, formally requested that Mr. Ridge testify before their panel, but the White House sent letters to both men Wednesday declining the offer.

"The longstanding position of Presidents of both parties, a position long respected by Congress, is that members of the President's staff do not ordinarily testify before congressional committees," wrote Nicolas E. Calio, assistant to the president for legislative affairs.

The letter states that Mr. Ridge and other presidential advisers have provided many homeland security briefings to lawmakers and their staffs in the past six months, and that other agency heads such as Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III regularly testify before Congress on the issue.

As Democrats mull their options, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, is trying to build support for a bill that would replace Mr. Ridge's office with a Department of Homeland Security. The department would have a Cabinet-level secretary who would require Senate confirmation.

Mr. Lieberman said he wants to move the bill through his committee, but has not decided when that will happen.

The panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, said he would be willing to look at the proposal in several months.

"I think we ought to give [Mr.] Ridge some leeway," Mr. Thompson said. "He's dealing with the most sensitive issue … he's scrambling to get his team together and get it functional."

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