WASHINGTON -- President Bush's proposed Homeland Security Department underwent basic changes Thursday in House committees, despite pleas from a quartet of senior Cabinet officials for Congress to stick to the administration's blueprint.
Although the actions were preliminary and could change again, the decisions indicated that Congress is intent on recasting Bush's plan for a new Cabinet-level agency with some 170,000 employees and an annual budget of at least $37 billion.
"If we do something incorrectly, we'll be haunted by this legislation," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
House panels rebuffed Bush's request to move the Coast Guard to the new department from the Transportation Department and decided to retain the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a separate entity.
They refused Bush's wish for broad authority to transfer money within the new agency's budget without congressional approval; kept the bulk of animal and plant health inspection programs in the Agriculture Department; and made clear that the Health and Human Services Department would maintain primary responsibility for human-related research.
Fewer moving plans
A day earlier, House committees decided against Bush's plan to move the entire Immigration and Naturalization Service into the new agency and voted to shift the Secret Service from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department instead of to Homeland Security, again contrary to White House wishes.
The actions came despite an unusual joint appearance by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft. All four appeared before a select House committee that will assemble legislation creating the department out of the recommendations submitted by the other panels.
The administration officials said the Bush plan provides the proper balance in safeguarding Americans from terrorism at home by improving intelligence sharing and bringing dozens of far-flung agencies under one roof with one mission. They urged lawmakers not to let turf battles and fear of change stand in the way.
"We cannot respond to the terrorist threats simply by pledging more cooperation or making marginal changes," O'Neill said. "We must be willing to make a dramatic transformation in light of the dramatic threats we face."
Although the House committee actions would make some serious dents in Bush's plan, they are only recommendations and far from the final word on the new department. House leaders have said the committee work does not have to be followed to the letter when a bill is readied for floor action later this month; the Senate will also have its say.
"It seems to me that we're a good distance from a conclusion," said Rumsfeld, who wore a heavy wrap on his right arm because of thumb surgery. "Anything that's this substantial ... will take a good deal of discussion."
House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said there remained strong bipartisan support to create the new agency, even as Republicans and Democrats alike raise objections and seek to make changes. House and Senate leaders set a goal of finishing the legislation by mid-September, but Pelosi said that is not set in stone.
"I think we should move as quickly as we can, but not hastily," she said. "If it requires more time, we should take more time."
In his remarks to the select panel, Powell said he would strongly oppose any effort to strip away the State Department's issuance of visas to foreign visitors, as some lawmakers want. Two House committees voted Wednesday for a compromise supported by the White House that would only allow Homeland Security oversight of the visa program, not a complete takeover.
"We have been working hard to make sure that only those who mean us no harm can come to this country," Powell said as lawmakers questioned lapses that let terrorists, including those involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, get into the United States legally.
Likewise, Ashcroft said it would be a mistake to divide the INS into a services branch based at Justice and an enforcement division in the new department. Bush wants to move the INS whole into Homeland Security but remake it into separate, cooperative divisions.