President Bush took a four-hour detour from war planning today to salute the Coast Guard for its new counterterrorism duties and burnish his own credentials on homeland security, which Democrats accuse him of shortchanging.
The Coast Guard has often felt like the forgotten service, but today Bush called attention to the cutters guarding ports and oil platforms in the Persian Gulf and the officers boarding suspicious vessels approaching U.S. ports.
"After our nation was attacked on September the 11th, 2001, America made a decision: We will not wait for our enemies to strike before we act against them," Bush said at the Port of Philadelphia. "We're not going to permit terrorists and terror states to plot and plan and grow in strength while we do nothing."
Bush's remarks sought to connect the war in Iraq with a broader campaign against terrorism and also were aimed at Democrats who are treating homeland security as the one defense-related issue on which he might be vulnerable. Bush made a huge issue last fall of Democrats' delay in creating the Department of Homeland Security, and they now accuse him of failing to allocate enough money to back up his rhetoric.
Senate Democrats plan to announce Tuesday that they will try to add about $9 billion for homeland security to Bush's $74.7 billion war spending request. That is roughly the amount of foreign aid in the supplemental request.
"This is a two-front war, and we must do more to secure our front lines here at home," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) called the $4.25 billion Bush had requested for homeland security as part of the war budget "only a start." Republican leaders have indicated they may agree to increase the amount for states and localities.
Democrats contend that Bush has been grudging in his embrace of homeland security, going back to his original opposition to creating a separate department. Bush eventually adopted the idea, and the new department -- combining all or part of 22 agencies, including the Coast Guard -- opened Jan. 24.
Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee issued a chart labeled "Credibility Gap: Bush and Port Security" that accused him of budgeting far less than some of his appointees have recommended.
"He's trying to get right on the subject with a few photo ops," Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said. "They feel compelled to save every blessed dime they can for their tax cuts."
The Customs Service, Energy Department and Coast Guard have asked the White House for substantially more money than Bush has budgeted.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) expressed frustration in particular about the administration's delay in spending $28 million that Congress appropriated last year for a pilot program to monitor cargo containers from overseas. A Transportation Security Administration official said the administration was still accepting applications and that the money "should be awarded sometime in the May/June timeframe."
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who introduced Bush today, said the administration's actions "have made this port and other American ports hostile territory for would-be terrorists, but a safe harbor for trade and travel."
Bush's budget director, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., said that instead of spending against every eventuality, the government needs to be smarter about reducing the greatest vulnerabilities. "There is not enough money in the galaxy to protect every square inch of America," Daniels said.