- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge informally briefed senators yesterday on his efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks, but top Democrats called it a publicity "stunt" and introduced a bill to bring his post under congressional oversight.

"Why not testimony? I think he owes that to the American people. The administration owes that to the country," said Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.

"It seems to me that ultimately that's going to happen. It's either going to happen through statute or it's going to happen through subpoena or it's going to happen through negotiation, but it's going to happen."

A bill introduced in the House and Senate yesterday would make the dispute over testimony moot by changing Mr. Ridge's position into a Cabinet-level post requiring Senate confirmation and designating it as secretary of the Department of National Homeland Security.

Mr. Ridge and the White House have been at odds with senators over whether he should be forced to give testimony before committees. President Bush says Mr. Ridge is a presidential adviser, established by executive order and not confirmed by the Senate, and should not have to testify.

But Mr. Ridge has tried to make himself accessible and yesterday he held a question-and-answer session with about a dozen senators at the invitation of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican.

In addition to talking about plans to consolidate agencies that handle border security, Mr. Ridge defended the way the administration has handled his position.

"I understand the need for information, the power of the purse strings, congressional responsibility, but I think the way the president has designed the office and given responsibility and opportunity to coordinate will serve future presidents as well," he said.

But that explanation wasn't enough for some senators, who saw even the event's timing as a thumb in the eye.

It happened at the same time Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, was holding hearings on homeland security in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Mr. Byrd has been pleading for months with the White House to have Mr. Ridge testify before the committee.

"Instead of allowing Director Ridge to testify before this Senate Appropriations Committee, the administration would rather trivialize homeland security with these made-for-television stunts," Mr. Byrd said.

Mr. Byrd's committee hearing had been scheduled since Friday, but Mr. Hatch said he didn't know there was a conflict. The committee did hear testimony from Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Some lawmakers have become convinced that Mr. Ridge doesn't have the budget and statutory authority to referee disputes like the one between border patrol officials and the Defense Department over whether National Guard troops stationed at the border should be armed.

"I'm sure Governor Ridge, as director of the White House Office of Homeland Security, has done everything within his power to make this nation safer, but in the months since his appointment it has become clear to many of us, and perhaps even to him, that he lacks the necessary authority to accomplish what needs to be done," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat.

"This job requires administrative teeth, but as currently configured, it is likely to get bitten by the existing bureaucracy."

The House effort is being led by Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry, Texas Republican, who said "rearranging boxes on an organizational chart" isn't glamorous, but it's a critical first step. "This kind of reform is not a magic answer to our security concerns, but it is an essential piece of making our country more secure," he said.

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