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Congressional leaders back new Cabinet post

Gephardt says Congress would try to make a Department of Homeland Security "a reality as quickly as possible."  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congressional leaders in both parties Thursday applauded President Bush's plan to create a Department of Homeland Security and vowed quick legislative action to make it happen.

"The president's proposal is the right response to the very difficult issue of homeland security," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert in a written statement. "The House will start the process of creating a Department of Homeland Security as soon as possible."

The Illinois Republican's words were echoed by House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

"My hope is that we can effectively and expeditiously receive this plan from the president, work it through the Congress, and try to make it a reality as quickly as possible," Gephardt told reporters.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota called the proposal "encouraging."

"Many of us in Congress have said for some time that domestic security should be coordinated under a cabinet-level position," he said in a written statement

He said it is also necessary for Congress to continue its investigations into what went wrong on September 11.

Republican Senate leader Trent Lott of Mississippi also applauded the president's plan, but cautioned it would take a lot of congressional work to put into action.

"This is a huge lift, but it is an important lift." Lott told reporters, adding that he hopes Congress could pass the needed legislation by the end of the year.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, called the move "a positive step long-awaited by many of us in Congress" and said was looking forward to seeing the details.

"We need to ensure that this new office has the mandate and the tools to address our country's complex national security issues," he said.

"We need a well-organized, efficiently-run office that works in coordination with existing law enforcement and intelligence agencies, not another bureaucracy."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut, who has been among the leaders in the push to make homeland security a Cabinet post, was pleased by the proposal.

But, he said, "make no mistake about it. Change is never easy, particularly for large bureaucracies, and I expect that there will be opposition from the bureaucracies that are being put under the new secretary of homeland security and from members of Congress who are close to those bureaucracies."

Lieberman's proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security was approved by his committee 9-7, with all the "no" votes coming from Republicans at a time when the White House opposed the move.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the president's plan differs markedly from Democratic proposals and "would weigh down the homeland security agency with huge amounts of non-homeland security responsibilities."

Noting that the plan would move the Coast Guard, the Secret Service and other units to the new department, he said that would give the secretary of homeland security responsibility for:

  • Counterfeit and credit card fraud, handled by the Secret Service.
  • Oil spill cleanups, recreational water safety and enforcement of fisheries laws, handled by the Coast Guard.
  • Pest control, handled by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
  • Response to floods and hurricanes, handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  • Regulating commercial activities and collecting duties on shipments, handled by the Customs Service.
  • And the design of nuclear weapons and scientific programs handled by the Department of Energy's Livermore Lab.
  • "By the administration's own estimates, the new Homeland Security Department would employ at least 160,000 people," Obey said in a written statement.

    "Yet because the administration has not consulted the agencies it is moving around, the proposal risks creating huge new redundancies and unnecessarily expanding the size of government at a huge cost to taxpayers."

    Word of Bush's proposal was no surprise to many officials within the FBI and other intelligence communities, nor among analysts outside the government.

    FBI officials told CNN the agency was fully briefed about the president's intentions before word began to come out.

    One senior FBI official said that since September 11 "it has become clear that there are so many different agencies involved in intelligence gathering in one way or another that there is a need to have it gathered in one place."

    Intelligence experts outside the government said the change is common sense.

    One analyst told CNN Homeland Security Office Director Tom Ridge's job "looked, felt and smelled like a Cabinet position, so finally the Bush administration has decided to call it what it is," at a time Congress has been pushing for oversight of such an agency with broad law enforcement functioning.

    Sources said that while it is not guaranteed that Ridge would be nominated for the Cabinet post if Congress approves it, he is currently the leading candidate.

    One negative note was sounded by a state homeland security official who doubted lawmakers would approve the Bush proposal.

    The official told CNN it "sounds great, but it's dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. ... They will never go for this" because of what the official called "committee stovepiping that lets them barrel-out pork" to their districts.

    The official called the White House proposal a clever maneuver to divert attention from the hearings into intelligence failures surrounding September 11.

    -- CNN correspondents Kelli Arena, Jeanne Meserve and Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.




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