Senators push Homeland for Cabinet

Legislation would give the Office of Homeland Security statutory and budget authority as well as the lead role in case of a terrorist attack

Members of Congress are supporting a proposal to make the Office of Homeland Security a Cabinet-level agency, but the White House is lukewarm about the idea of creating yet another bureaucracy.

At a hearing April 11, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and co-sponsor of the legislation, said homeland security is an issue that will not go away for generations.

"The bottom line is if statutory and budget authority are not conferred upon the director of homeland security, the homeland defense of this nation will always be less than it should be," Lieberman said.

Lieberman and other supporters say elevating the office to Cabinet level would eliminate waste and stop turf battles that exist among agencies that have direct authority over components of homeland security. For example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service handle border duties, the State Department issues visas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency deals with domestic crisis, and first responders, such as police and firefighters, are on the front lines in emergencies.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) would combine the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, Customs and FEMA and coordinate state and local governments as well as give the Office of Homeland Security the lead authority in calling the shots in the event of a terrorist attack.

But Mitchell Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that the homeland office, headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, is able to do its job without adding another bureaucratic layer to government.

"The administration is committed to securing the homeland and keeping Congress appropriately informed on homeland security matters," Daniels said.

The Lieberman-Specter bill is only one of a number of proposals that Congress is considering to fill the gaps on homeland security.

Other bills call for reorganizing INS and dividing it into two bureaus — one that would handle enforcement duties and one that would be in charge of citizen and immigration services.

"This is a long-term effort which will span years and administrations...and involve billions and billions of dollars," David Walker, comptroller general of the United States, testified at the hearing.

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