WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge could move up to eighth in the line of presidential succession, leapfrogging 10 other Cabinet members in a congressional effort to better prepare for a catastrophic attack on Washington.
Under legislation approved by the Senate and now pending in the House, Ridge would move from 18th to eighth, behind Attorney General John Ashcroft and in front of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, in the line to succeed the president in a disaster.
The measure sped through the Senate without debate last Friday.
Ridge, asked about the legislation, said Monday, "One of our responsibilities obviously is continuity of government ... and where the Congress thinks the secretary should fit, that's their judgment. I'm satisfied with it."
The current system dates back to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, signed by President Truman, that specifies that the vice president, the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate and the secretary of state are next in line to take over the presidency if necessary. Other Cabinet members are listed according to the date their offices were established.
With the formation of the Homeland Security Department early this year, Ridge became 18th in the succession line, behind Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi.
But both in the Senate, where Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., sponsored the legislation, and in the House there's been a push to change the order,
DeWine said that the Homeland Security chief, because of his responsibilities for disaster relief and security, would be best qualified to take over the nation after an attack that took the lives of the top seven successors.
"We need to be prepared for even the worst-case disaster scenario," and it makes sense to break with tradition and elevate the head of the largest and one of the most powerful departments, DeWine said.
Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said in introducing legislation in the House in early June that the Homeland Security chief should be placed higher because his job is "dealing with mortal threats to the country."
Cox and Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, have proposed a bill that would also make the Homeland Security secretary eighth in line as well as clarify other language in the 1947 law. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., has introduced a similar bill.
The current order of succession lists Vice President Dick Cheney, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Senate President Pro Tempore Ted Stevens, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of the Treasury John Snow, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and Norton.
Then, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi and Ridge.
The Constitution, however, requires that the president be a natural-born citizen, so Chao, born in Taiwan, and Martinez, who came to the United States from Cuba, would not be eligible.