Homeland security secretary-nominee Tom Ridge will not move from temporary offices in downtown Washington to new department headquarters in Northern Virginia until spring, aides said.
While the headquarters site is to be selected from a handful of contenders as early as today, government officials said, only about 2,200 federal employees will work in the new facility by year's end. That level is likely to be maintained for the foreseeable future and is more comparable to a medium-size corporate headquarters than a sprawling complex such as the Pentagon.
The staffing estimates, cited in leasing papers and budget data submitted to Congress, indicate that contrary to some expectations on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, the new Department of Homeland Security headquarters will not create a giant new government installation in Virginia, at least not right away.
According to Ridge's office, the vast majority of the roughly 17,000 government employees in the Washington area to be transferred officially to the new department March 1 should breathe easier, because most will stay put for now. About 177,000 workers from 22 agencies are being consolidated into the department nationwide.
The plan also raises the possibility of a future round in the fight among Virginia, Maryland and the District to permanently host the agency. If all 17,000 workers moved into one facility, they would require 4 million square feet of space, real estate executives said.
"I don't think anybody should expect to see the secretary in a more permanent location until sometime in the spring," Ridge spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Even then, he said, "you're just talking about the office of the secretary -- 100 or so people."
When the department takes over most of the constituent agencies March 1, he added, "that doesn't mean that everyone will report to somebody new. They'll have a job, they'll do that in their present home for an undetermined amount of time. . . . You could obviously see the benefits of consolidating various agencies together into one location, but those decisions are down the road."
The timetable of the phase-in has drawn complaints from some congressional Democrats who say the administration gave Congress the bum's rush last week by ramming through approval of the headquarters location -- once it is selected -- without committee review or hearings.
Democrats say that the administration raced to set up a token workforce in time for the president's Jan. 28 State of the Union address and that a proper review could have taken place while plans jelled further.
"Does this administration have any intention of ever creating one department under one roof?" said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "This building isn't going to hold the 17,000 employees of the new department headquarters."
Johndroe said decisions about exactly what agencies and which personnel will move this year, and whether and how the department might expand beyond the 575,000 square feet it has won permission to lease, have yet to be made.
For now, the General Services Administration laid out plans for a lease of up to 10 years to "provide [the department] with interim space while studies are conducted to provide a more permanent housing solution."
A leasing document sent to Congress added, "Eventually, headquarters is anticipated to house up to 2,200 personnel."
Area leaders say the fight to permanently house the department will carry over to another day. "Let me put members on notice," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said on the House floor last week. "We insist that the permanent headquarters be located here, and I ask members . . . to assist us in making sure that happens."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and a bipartisan group of six House members also asked Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to press the administration for the permanent headquarters.
In Virginia, officials are laying out the red carpet, hoping that the interim site will become entrenched and difficult to move. Fairfax County Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) has written one Chantilly building owner in talks with the government, Carr Capital Corp., offering expedited zoning review.
"We don't offer rebates or tax incentives, so the best you can do is try to make the system work as efficiently as it can," Frey said, offering to "shave months off" the 120 days it usually takes to approve a site plan for grading, utility, stormwater management and building plans.
For federal workers in agencies to be folded into Homeland Security, the situation has spread anxiety.
At Customs Service headquarters in downtown Washington, the location of the new agency's headquarters is "the number one question I am hearing in the halls and offices," one employee said, especially affecting workers who rely on Metro and receive a mass transit subsidy and Marylanders who could face a 60- to 90-minute commute.
Staff writers Stephen Barr, Neil Irwin and Christopher Lee contributed to this report.