Congress pieces together legislation on new homeland security agency

Thursday, July 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush's plan for a new homeland security department is making steady progress through Congress, with lawmakers approving pieces of a legislative puzzle that largely coincides with the president's ideas.

To keep the momentum going, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft and other top officials were appearing Thursday before a special House committee created to refine legislation to carry out the most significant change in the federal bureaucracy in a half-century.

On Wednesday, five House committees approved portions of the bill affecting agencies under their jurisdictions. Most endorsed the outline Bush set down June 6, although there was some tinkering.

The Judiciary Committee voted to keep most of the Federal Emergency Management Agency as an independent disaster response agency and to move the Secret Service from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department rather than into the new Homeland Security Department.

That panel also decided to move the enforcement arm of the Immigration and Naturalization Service into the security agency but leave other immigration services with Justice.

On Thursday, four more committees will vote on the proposal, with one focus being how the Transportation Committee handles the Coast Guard. The president would incorporate the Coast Guard in the new department, but some lawmakers say that could diminish its non-security functions such as search-and-rescue missions.

Five former Coast Guard commandants sent a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Wednesday supporting the president's plan and saying the Coast Guard must remain intact if it is to continue to fulfill its traditional missions.

The Select Committee on Homeland Security, which hosts Powell and the other administration officials at its first hearing Thursday, is responsible for putting together the different parts and sending a bill to the House floor this month.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who heads that committee, has said he would respect the votes of the different committees but his committee would make the final decisions on the bill to be submitted for floor debate.

The Senate is expected to act on its version this month as well, with the goal of sending the president a bill in September.

``It is crucial we take this historic step,'' White House homeland security adviser Tom Ridge told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday. The new department is to handle security functions now spread among more than 100 agencies with budgets totaling $37 billion. Bush wants the new department running by Jan. 1.

One big issue Wednesday was what agency should handle the 10 million visa applications every year that come in now. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., tried to move all visa operations from the State Department to the new agency, saying State ``has repeatedly proven that it is the wrong agency to exercise power to grant visas.''

But in an 18-15 vote, the committee accepted a proposal by House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., that is in line with the president's plan: It would leave consular activities at State but give the new department power to train consular officials and review visa applications with security questions.

Ridge, a potential candidate to head the new department, was also quizzed by Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, on plans to move FEMA to the new department. Jeffords noted that most of FEMA's time is spent responding to natural disasters unrelated to terrorism.

Committee member Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pushed for changes in language that he said could cramp whistleblowers in the new agency and make it more difficult to obtain documents under the Freedom of Information Act. ``If the public is kept in the dark,'' Wyden said, ``that's going to make it tougher to tackle terrorists.''

Bush told about 3,700 federal workers whose jobs will likely become part of the new agency that ``there is an overriding and urgent mission here in America today, and that's to protect our homeland.''

Other changes recommended by House committees:

_Creation of a separate undersecretary for science and technology in the new department.

_Ensure that the Treasury Department maintain authority for the Customs Service to collect duties and other revenue.