- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (UPI) — A U.S. Senate committee voted Friday to send the nomination of Homeland Security Adviser Tom Ridge to the full chamber where it will be determined if he will lead the nation's new Cabinet-level agency aimed at protecting the country from terrorist attacks.

"Today we open historic confirmation hearing that I hope will mark the beginning of a new era of responsibility and readiness for America's domestic defenses," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said in his statement opening the hearings.

The Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs approved Ridge's nomination by voice vote. It will likely go to the full Senate either later Friday or soon after. Ridge appeared before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and addressed concerns about how the newly crafted Department of Homeland Security will handle its mission of protecting the nation and its borders from terrorist attack.

"I know you appreciate the enormity of the task ahead of you, and I appreciate your willingness to accept this challenge," said Lieberman.

If confirmed, Ridge would become the first secretary of an agency that consolidates more than 170,000 workers in 22 federal agencies in the largest federal government re-organization since 1947. President George W. Bush nominated Ridge for the job in November after he had served more than a year as homeland security adviser, a post created shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on Washington and New York left some 3,000 people dead.

The agency brings together Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard and the new Transportation Security Administration, among others. It has total control of America's borders along some 7,000 miles of land bordering Mexico and Canada.

"Should I be confirmed as secretary of Homeland Security, I will go to work every single morning with the mission of protecting the American people from the threat of terrorist attack," Ridge said.

The senators praised Ridge for his record of public service, with Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., saying that Ridge would have his vote for confirmation "no matter what" the former governor said during the hearing.

Ridge, 57, was elected to Congress in 1982 and served 12 years. He won the gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania in 1994. One of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11 and thought to be headed for either the White House or the U.S. Capitol, crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania.

The Senate committee, led by chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, questioned Ridge on employee rights within the new agency, how the department will work with the intelligence community, and how the borders, particularly ports, will be protected. It was Collin's first assignment as committee chairwoman.

Durbin said he as concerned about employee rights within the agency. He recalled that those who questioned the Bush administration's desire to suspend collective bargaining agreements in the name of national security have had their patriotism questioned. The White House has said it wants no union rules or restrictions on hiring, firing or job assignments.

"The firefighters who rushed into those buildings to their deaths (on Sept. 11) carried union cards," Durbin said.

Ridge told the panel that he would confer with workers and labor groups.

"We will eagerly solicit and consider advice from employees, unions, professional organizations and other stakeholders," Ridge said.

The lawmakers wanted to know how Ridge would coordinate intelligence-gathering and classified information with the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies in the intelligence community. Ridge assured the panel that a fundamental priority in the agency's mission would be to analyze threats, but also to work with the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies.

"This means the department will be a full participant, at all levels, in the mechanisms for setting foreign intelligence requirements," Ridge said.

Collins also reminded Ridge of the importance of communicating with state and local governments that serve as the frontline defense in the war against terrorism. She pointed out that the legislation creating the agency did not specify that the new department would have to keep local governments informed.

Ridge said that all governments would have "complete incident awareness and open communication."

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