Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush's homeland security chief, Tom Ridge, urged Congress on Thursday to move quickly on the "historic step" of creating a new Cabinet-level agency he said was crucial to safeguarding Americans against a continuing terrorist threat.
"I am here to ask, as the president did, that we move quickly. The need is urgent," Ridge said in written testimony prepared for a hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
Ridge, who for months resisted testifying before Congress as a confidential presidential adviser, said the administration has already begun planning for the huge transition to a department that Bush wants to put in place beginning Jan. 1, 2003. Ridge said he is leading that transition phase.
"It is crucial that we take this historic step," Ridge said.
The committee's chairman, Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, said that although lawmakers might not agree on every detail, the Senate is committed to bringing a bill to the floor by mid-July. Lieberman is sponsor of a similar bill that cleared his committee in May, at the time opposed by the Bush administration.
"This isn't about rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. It's about building a stronger ship of state," Lieberman said. "Slowly but surely won't do it in this case. We must proceed swiftly but surely."
Ridge was spending much of Thursday on Capitol Hill, appearing later before the House Government Reform Committee about the proposal.
Among the issues expected to come up are how the new agency will gather and analyze intelligence from the CIA, FBI and others, whether the huge reorganization will cost or save money and how it might affect federal worker benefits and rights.
Up to now, Ridge has confined his briefings to groups of House and Senate members behind closed doors. The White House had rejected repeated Senate entreaties that Ridge testify, arguing that as a confidential counselor to President Bush he was not required to.
His appearances followed House passage Wednesday of a resolution creating a bipartisan, nine- member committee of senior lawmakers to oversee the bill. The panel, chaired by Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, is important because it will cut through the jurisdictions of multiple existing committees.
The special committee will be responsible for assembling the final Homeland Security bill before it reaches the House floor, after taking recommendations from several existing committees. Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., set an aggressive timetable for those recommendations to be made by July 12, with floor debate on the entire bill planned the week of July 21.
Despite broad support for the president's plan, some lawmakers question whether the House is moving too fast to transfer 100 federal entities and about 170,000 employees into a single Cabinet agency with important new intelligence analysis duties.
"I have great reservations about what I consider to be a rush to judgment on this issue," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Besides Armey, the other Republican members of the panel are: Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas; J.C. Watts of Oklahoma; Deborah Pryce of Ohio; and Rob Portman of Ohio. The Democrats are: Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of California; Martin Frost of Texas; Robert Menendez of New Jersey; and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
------The House resolution is H.Res. 449.
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