- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

The Republican chairman of a House panel that funds the White House yesterday softened his earlier criticism of President Bush's refusal to allow congressional testimony by homeland security czar Tom Ridge.
Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma said in an interview that he is working with the White House to find other ways to get full information about the emerging $38 billion homeland security program, as the president is standing firm against Mr. Ridge being questioned publicly by Congress.
The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's Treasury, Postal Service and general government subcommittee acknowledged White House efforts to court him after his criticism of the administration's refusal to allow Mr. Ridge to testify before Congress. He said Mr. Ridge and his staff tried to mollify his concerns in private meetings at the White House on Thursday.
"I am getting positive feedback about providing us with the information and accountability that we need," Mr. Istook said. "I had a helpful, on-site visit and two personal briefings yesterday from the Office of Homeland Security."
In a prepared statement, he said he will not "insist" on Mr. Ridge's testimony if the White House can come up with "other ways" to "make sure our full committee has the access, accountability and information we need, in a way the White House will also approve."
"I don't think anyone has been persuaded to change position on whether they want [Mr. Ridge] to testify," Mr. Istook said. "I'm focusing on alternative ways to get the information and accountability that are necessary."
With respect to the White House, he said, "We are working together cooperatively to avoid confrontation."
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Istook strongly denied a report in yesterday's editions of The Washington Times that he had issued an ultimatum last week saying he wouldn't move the appropriations bill funding the Executive Office of the President if Mr. Ridge did not testify before Congress.
Mr. Istook's statement said The Times' report was "erroneous" and "mischaracterizes" his position.
Micah Swafford, the congressman's press secretary, said Mr. Istook's Capitol Hill office "was inundated with calls" after The Times story came out and was discussed in an early-morning program on C-SPAN.
The media interest nationwide continued into the afternoon. "Rush Limbaugh is criticizing us for holding up funding for homeland security," Ms. Swafford said, referring to the popular conservative radio talk-show host.
The Times' story said Mr. Istook and the appropriations panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, both wanted to ensure that homeland security funding was not impaired because of any impasse over White House cooperation involving Mr. Ridge's testimony before Congress.
But Ms. Swafford said "these nuances" resulting from Mr. Istook's earlier criticisms of the White House had led to a wrong conclusion that he would hold up homeland security funding. "He came right up to the edge, but he stopped short of saying he would hold up the funding bill," the spokeswoman said.
She said Mr. Istook spoke to House leaders and White House officials early yesterday after The Times' story appeared and then issued the statement that he had been "misquoted."
"Ultimatums accomplish nothing. I have not issued one, and I don't think the White House has, either," he said in the statement.
Last week, when Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. appeared before his House Appropriations Treasury, Postal Service and general government subcommittee, Mr. Istook chastised the White House for preventing Mr. Ridge's testimony and withholding information to justify funding requests for homeland security efforts.
"I am even more concerned by the insistence by this administration that Governor Ridge will not testify before this committee," Mr. Istook told the OMB director.
"I am interested in learning OMB's involvement in both of these decisions. They have a chilling impact on the appropriations process and the relationship that both OMB and the administration have with the committee," Mr. Istook said.
The Oklahoma Republican even said he was ready to withhold funding requested by the White House if the panel was unable to question officials it wanted or get complete information.
"In all good conscience, I cannot recommend drawing taxpayer money from the Treasury for programs that are not understood; for operations that have not been fully explained to me and others in Congress; and for activities that commit us to future funding in unknown amounts that we have not taken the time to fully calculate," he said.
Mr. Istook said House appropriators needed "full and complete understanding" of how money was to be used "to ensure that appropriated dollars are not only used for their intended and authorized purposes, but are also being used wisely."
Said Mr. Istook: "Mr. Director, let me be direct: I am dissatisfied with both the quantity and the quality of information coming out of the administration as it relates to homeland security. This is not minor. It involves billions of taxpayer dollars. More importantly, it involves millions of lives."
He added: "I cannot be more direct than this: The exchange of information between the executive and legislative branches on all appropriations matters must be free-flowing, honest and comprehensive."
In an interview Wednesday with The Times, Mr. Istook said the chances were "slim to none" that his subcommittee would approve the president's request, as submitted, to consolidate money for 12 existing White House budgets and an additional $30.5 million for Mr. Ridge's homeland security office into a single $329 million fiscal year 2003 appropriation.
He said the refusal to allow Mr. Ridge to testify before Congress to explain the $30.5 million in funding for his office in the White House as Mr. Daniels and other heads of White House offices must do was a reason the president will not get the consolidation. Consolidating funding for the White House would give the president more leeway to spend the money as he wants.


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