Ridge Sells Homeland Security Department to House, Senate Judiciary Committees

Wednesday marks the second time Ridge has visited Congress to stump for the Homeland Security Department.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) -- President Bush's homeland security adviser, Tom Ridge, was off to House and Senate committees on Wednesday to answer questions about the proposed, Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department.

Ridge is appearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday morning and the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday afternoon. This is the second time Ridge has appeared at back-to-back House and Senate hearings on the proposed Homeland Security Department.

He talked to the House Government Reform Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee last Thursday about the new department.

Ridge and the White House say they want combine 100 scattered federal entities with 170,000 employees and total annual budgets of at least $37 billion into one department without spending any extra government money. The president does not plan to ask for any money for the new department until the 2004 budget year, which many lawmakers say is not realistic.

Comptroller General David Walker, who leads the General Accounting Office, agrees. Funding for a new Homeland Security Department will require "a considerable amount above the baseline," he told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday.

"Although consolidating activities in one department may produce savings over the long term, there will be certain transition costs in the near term associated with setting up the new agency," he said.

Walker also said the agency won't be ready to go overnight, despite encouragement from the White House for congressional leaders to get the legislation passed. Lawmakers are rushing to pass initial versions of the plan by the end of July, but complaints about specific pieces have arisen.

"The magnitude of the challenges that the new department faces will clearly require substantial time and effort, and will take extra resources to make it fully effective," Walker said.

Meanwhile, other lawmakers, health advisers and GAO experts questioned whether critical public-health dangers like a virulent outbreak of influenza could take a back seat to bio-terrorism threats in the new department.

"Although [Health and Human Services] programs are important for homeland security, they are just as important to the day-to-day needs of public health agencies and hospitals, such as reporting on disease outbreaks," said Janet Heinrich, GAO director of public health issues.

Bush's plan, she said, "does not clearly provide a structure that ensures that both goals" can be met.

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