Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge moved a step closer yesterday toward confirmation as the first secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security when a Senate committee voted unanimously to back his nomination to the post even as several senators raised questions about aspects of the Bush administration's domestic defense policies.
Ridge is expected to easily win confirmation from the full Senate in a roll call vote scheduled for Tuesday. Senators have acted to quickly confirm Ridge, the current director of the Office of Homeland Security, because he is set to inaugurate the new agency on Friday.
Ridge told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday that, after 16 months of effort by federal and local governments in response to the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, "America is undoubtedly safer and better prepared today than on September 10, 2001."
Responding to a question from the committee's chairman, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) -- who cited a recent blue-ribbon panel's conclusion that the nation "remains dangerously unprepared" for another terrorist strike -- Ridge contended that the government has made great strides in security. Scrutiny of air passengers has been dramatically tightened, increased attention is paid to cargo arriving at U.S. ports, and coordination among U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies has been stepped up.
Republicans and Democrats alike heaped praises on Ridge, 57, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a former six-term member of the House of Representatives, for his leadership. But members of both parties raised questions about some of the administration's domestic security priorities and about decisions Ridge has made as President Bush's top homeland defense adviser for more than a year.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), the panel's ranking Democrat who announced on Monday that he is running for president, offered relatively skeptical introductory remarks that suggested he may make homeland defense a centerpiece of his campaign. He said the administration has underfunded domestic security in a number of areas, including those involving emergency medical personnel and police.
"The administration's homeland security efforts thus far have left much to be desired and much to be done," Lieberman said. "It is unacceptable that we have not come further faster. . . . Its vision, I believe, has been too blurry, and its willingness to confront the status quo, including with resources . . . has been too cautious."
Several senators again raised questions about an issue that had held up debate on the creation of the department for months: Bush's insistence that the new secretary have maximum flexibility to reassign and remove personnel at the department, which will have 177,000 employees from 22 federal agencies. Most Democrats had expressed fears that department leaders could ride roughshod over workers' rights and silence whistle-blowers who expose wrongdoing.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) recalled during last fall's election campaign that "those who raised questions on this issue had our patriotism questioned." One Democrat he cited was former senator Max Cleland of Georgia, a member of the Senate Governmental Affairs panel and a wounded Vietnam War veteran who lost a reelection bid after Republicans assailed his opposition to the homeland security bill on those grounds.
Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) responded that Bush's and Ridge's demand for managerial power in handling personnel issues "was not about patriotism" but was aimed at "allowing you to shake up the status quo" of a resistant federal bureaucracy.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who as a home-state senator introduced Ridge to the panel, took the lectern to pound away at aspects of the administration's policies on analyzing terrorist threats. After months of internal debate, Bush decided to leave responsibility for collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence on terrorists with the CIA, and to have the homeland security agency perform further analysis aimed at protecting U.S. infrastructure.
Specter said he wants Ridge to oversee the CIA's intelligence analysis, too. "Why not give that strong hand" to the new secretary? Specter asked Ridge.
Ridge replied that the current bifurcation is working well and that he, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and CIA Director George J. Tenet confer twice daily via videoconference about counterterrorism matters.
"But in spite of all we've done, we're only at the beginning of what will be a long struggle," Ridge said. "We face a hate-filled, remorseless enemy."