WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) -- Tom Ridge took over as homeland security chief Wednesday after the Senate gave him its unanimous endorsement -- and a strong message that it would be watching carefully as he molds a makeshift operation into one of government's largest agencies.
"With today's historic vote, the Senate has demonstrated our shared commitment to doing everything we can to secure our homeland," President Bush said after the 94-0 vote to make Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor and the president's top adviser on domestic terrorism, the first secretary of the new Homeland Security Department.
Ridge, 57, will head a department that originated in legislation signed by Bush last November and won't formally come into being until Friday.
It eventually will be comprised of 170,000 civil servants now working at 22 separate agencies with security-related functions, including the Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Secret Service, Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Officials are still looking for a headquarters for the most massive federal reorganization since the 1947 creation of the Defense Department. Ridge will continue to work out of his White House West Wing office and a transition office in downtown Washington until a permanent home is found.
He is likely to be joined soon by former Arkansas congressman and Drug Enforcement Administration director Asa Hutchinson, who testified before a Senate committee Wednesday on his nomination to be the new department's undersecretary for border and transportation security.
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said during debate on the nomination Wednesday that the Cabinet post Ridge will assume "may well be the most challenging position created by Congress during the last 50 years." That committee sent Ridge's nomination to the full Senate by a unanimous vote on Friday.
Collins, like other senators, laid down problems Ridge will face, specifically how the department will coordinate with the 2 million police, firefighters, medical personnel and other first responders around the country. "Interoperability has gone from being a buzz word to a matter of life and death," she said.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said that while the government has allotted $8 billion for a national missile defense system, it has neglected a far greater terrorist threat at the nation's ports, inspecting only about 100,000 of the 5.7 million containers entering the country every year.
Others said that while airport security has improved since the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation's borders remain porous, its railways unprotected and its food and water supplies vulnerable. Democrats said the administration, trying to hold the line on overall spending this year, hasn't adequately funded security needs.
"Cuts have been made that devastate our ability to deal with homeland defense," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who strongly opposed the legislation creating the new department, complained of the "expanding cloak of secrecy that has fallen over this administration" as it pursues the war on terrorism, and said Ridge must consider carefully how his actions will affect civil liberties.
"How far this department can peer into the lives of the American public will, in large part, be influenced by Gov. Ridge," he said.
Ridge, a Harvard graduate and decorated Vietnam War veteran, was elected to the House in 1982 from his hometown area of Erie, Pa., and served for 12 years. In 1994, he became Pennsylvania's governor, winning re-election in 1998.
Close to Bush, he was among those considered as a possible running mate on the Republican ticket in 2000. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Ridge resigned as governor to become Bush's adviser as head of the White House Office of Homeland Security.
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