WASHINGTON ? Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., today welcomed Homeland Security Advisor Tom Ridge to testify before the committee on President Bush?s proposal to create a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. The Administration proposal tracks closely to a proposal Lieberman first offered last fall and which the committee approved in late May.
Speaking of the challenge ahead in creating the new department, Lieberman said, ?this cannot be a leisurely process. ?Slowly but surely? doesn?t do it, in this case. We must proceed swiftly and surely, because the safety of the American people is at stake.?
Lieberman added that, ?with all due respect to the critics of this reorganization, this isn?t about rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. It?s about building a ship of state that?s better equipped to carry the American people through the rough waters ahead.?
Lieberman?s bill, introduced with Senators Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Bob Graham, D-Fla., and a bipartisan group of House members, would combine the Customs Service, the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a handful of other, smaller programs into a full-fledged department, led by a Senate-confirmed Secretary with budget authority over the department agencies. The measure would also create a White House Office for Combating Terrorism, whose Senate- confirmed director would coordinate anti-terror activities government-wide. The bill was reported out of the Governmental Affairs Committee May 22 by a party line vote of 9-7.
Lieberman, who described that bill and the legislation proposed by the president as ?a strong foundation to build on,? also heard testimony from former Senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, who co-chaired a commission whose recommendations informed Lieberman?s legislation.
Lieberman expressed his commitment to work with the White House and his Congressional colleagues in forming the new department. He also announced his intention to move the legislation through the committee and to the Senate floor next month and send it to President Bush ?by September 11, at best and by the end of the session, at least.?
Lieberman noted that there were differences between the two proposals that would have to be reconciled. Chief among the unanswered questions that Lieberman raised were:
· How to address the lack of coordination and information sharing among key agencies, including the FBI and CIA, that now appears to have been the most glaring failure of our government leading up to September 11. While Lieberman?s bill establishes a White House office to oversee such coordination, Bush?s proposal directs the new department to serve as an intelligence clearinghouse. Recognizing the possibility that “neither proposal may be adequate to the threat,” Lieberman intends to hold further hearings on this aspect of the plan next week;
· How to best integrate military resources into the effort, and how the department will interact with the proposed new Northern Command in the Department of Defense;
· How to best ensure that local law enforcement and other first responders are ?in the mix, not on the sidelines,? as the agency is formed, and to ensure they have the funds to carry out their mission.
Assessing the road ahead, Lieberman said that, ?In part, this is an organizational task. But it?s also a more fundamental challenge to transform the people?s government at a time of crisis, against the friction of entrenched interests, while protecting our freedoms.?