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Bush considers merging INS, Customs

By Kelly Wallace
CNN White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush is considering a recommendation from his advisers to improve border security by merging the two federal agencies responsible for protecting the nation's borders, the White House said.

Bush met with his homeland security team and Cabinet on Tuesday morning to discuss recommendations, which include combining the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- which already oversees the Border Patrol -- and the U.S. Customs Service, said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Fleischer said the president has not yet made a decision, and could not say when a decision would be made.

"When he has something to share, he'll share it," Fleischer said.

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Bush and the first lady travel to El Paso, Texas Thursday, for an event focusing on border security. Fleischer could not say if the president would use that event to announce his decision.

"The recommendation has been received by the president that would merge some agencies.. .to help enforce the border more tightly," Fleischer said.

The recommendation is being pushed by Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, U.S. officials said.

While Fleischer would not reveal the president's thinking, he did tout the benefits of merging the agencies.

"There is a school of thought that you can have better controls and more effective ways of welcoming people to this country, welcoming trade to this country, while keeping people out who would do us harm as a result of consolidation," Fleischer said. "This is a fairly consistent approach... when it comes to whether or not the most effective ways are to consolidate what different agencies do or let the agencies continue in their separate areas and just coordinate."

"This is an age-old debate in the federal government and it is an important one," he added.

The Washington Post first reported in its Tuesday edition that Bush was considering merging the agencies responsible for overseeing the nation's borders.

Similar proposals to merge the agencies have been rejected in the past, but senior Bush administration officials believe there might be more support now for the change after the September 11 attacks.

Fleischer said the president considers border security "a very important priority given everything that has happened since September 11." He said the goal is to "make certain our borders are free and open to people who come here...on a regular basis... free and open to commerce which is a vital part of America's economy (but) will slam shut people who come here to do us harm."

Fleischer said the move would require congressional legislation. If the president approves the recommendation and Congress signs off on the plan, the merged agency would not be under the auspices of the Homeland Security Office, but under a Cabinet agency, likely the Justice Department, U.S. officials indicated.

Democratic lawmakers have been pressing for Ridge to testify before Congress to talk about homeland security issues, including ways to strengthen the borders. But the administration has refused, saying that Ridge is a White House adviser to the president and that White House advisers, such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, are not required to testify.

But that has not satisfied Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the ranking Democrat and Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. They sent a letter to Bush calling for Ridge to come before Congress.

Senior administration officials say that Byrd has "rebuffed" efforts by the administration to try to resolve the matter, and they say that Ridge will continue to brief members of Congress but won't testify.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, has also raised the possibility of using a subpoena to compel Ridge to testify.

An aide to Daschle said that "coercion is not his first option, but it's an option."




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