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Lawmakers Back Bush Plan For Homeland Security Dept.

By Juliet Eilperin

Lawmakers hailed President Bush’s plan to create a new Cabinet department for homeland security Thursday, though several cautioned they expect to help shape its mission and structure in the coming months.

The rush of public support from members of both parties, who received no advance warning about the massive overhaul and had yet to learn many details about it by late Thursday afternoon, suggested strong congressional interest in addressing failures in the nation’s security system.

Several lawmakers have already introduced legislation calling for a reorganization of the government’s security apparatus, and hailed the president’s move as well-timed.

“It’s encouraging, it’s good news, it looks like it’s headed in the right direction,” said Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who’s sponsored a bill on the subject and whose committee is likely to handle the president’s plan. “I think we ought to begin discussions and move the legislation as soon as possible.”

“It just makes sense,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “It demonstrates in a very tangible fashion the president’s determination to give this the very highest priority.”

Most lawmakers interviewed Thursday said they had little choice but to radically change how the government guards against terrorist attacks.

“There’s just too much at stake,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. He said Bush “is putting the responsibility squarely in our lap.”

At the same time, however, several members suggested they’d need more information before gauging how Congress could establish such a major new agency.

“The president has recognized both the seriousness of the ongoing threat to the United States and the problems that exist,” said Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. But Roemer added, “We certainly need more than a flow chart before we vote to create the second-biggest government agency.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., welcomed Bush’s plan, saying it was in line with earlier demands from many lawmakers for coordination of domestic security responsibilities by a Cabinet-level official. But he made it clear that Congress intends to play an active role in determining the new structure and that he still intends to push for an independent commission “to understand fully what went wrong on Sept. 11 and to make our nation as secure as possible in the future.”

The task of pushing through such a sweeping overhaul before Congress adjourns this fall will be a serious challenge, particularly since both lawmakers and outside interest groups may chafe at losing control over certain government functions. Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee and defends the president’s plan, predicted “a blizzard” of jurisdictional battles on Capitol Hill.

Some lawmakers already have begun raising concerns, questioning whether some government responsibilities would be brushed aside in the reshuffling.

Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said any reorganization would fail if Bush was unwilling to provide sufficient resources for it.