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‘Heavy Lifting’ Ahead For Homeland Panel

As the newly anointed chairman of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) knows he has his work cut out for him.

Cox faces months of refereeing turf battles, massaging bruised egos and cutting through reams of bureaucratic red tape.

But in the first few weeks on the job, Cox may not have anticipated facing some of the very same challenges as new Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who was sworn in Friday.

Last week, Ridge was hit with Democratic criticism that the massive department’s new budget is not nearly enough, as well as disappointment that the agency is going to continue to be housed, for the time being, in D.C.

Finding housing for the committee and an adequate budget are also the two major questions Cox is trying to settle in his first days on the job.

“Time is of the essence,” Cox said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office late last week. “If we’re going to make a serious contribution to homeland security and the formulation of the new department, we need to start acting sooner rather than later.”

“In addition, next year is a very political year,” he warned. “So for something that is so important to our country, we need to get most of the heavy lifting done this year.”

Cool-headed and cautiously ambitious, Cox understands that, along with the oversight of a 170,000-employee department, his political future is at stake. Cox won the reconstituted committee in some ways as a consolation prize. Ideally, he had wanted to wield the Government Reform gavel, but that went to Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).

If he was granted his top choice, many Republicans expected him to give up his post as GOP Policy Committee chairman. But after negotiations with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Cox was able to head the new panel and keep his leadership spot, which sweetened the deal.

“The Speaker thought it was very important for the chairman of the committee to be a member of the leadership,” Cox said.

He has now embraced his new role and may become the in-house homeland security expert for many years to come because the select committee is slated to grow into a full standing committee in the next Congress.

Seeking Advice

Even though Cox is known for his calm diplomacy, these skills will be tested in his new role. Cox said the experience he gained in the White House counsel’s office during the Reagan administration will help him bridge the divide between Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue.

“I was always surprised by how much the executive branch is generally pretty uninformed about how Capitol Hill works, and Capitol Hill is pretty unfamiliar with the inner workings of the White House,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of running back and forth between the two branches, and I think that’s going to help.”

Cox has already sent a letter to each chairman with jurisdiction over some aspect of homeland security, asking for recommendations for changes to the Homeland Security Act by no later than the end of February.

In order to jump-start the process, Cox spent the past two weeks trying to meet with all the committee chairmen who claim some turf, as well as Ridge and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But so far there seems to be more questions about the committee than answers. Hastert has yet to appoint Members to the committee, nor has Pelosi.

Hastert spokesman John Feehery said he expects assignments to be made by the end of January, and other GOP aides said that most of the questions about the new committee will be discussed and should be resolved at the House Republican retreats at the end of this week.

“No decisions have been made. We just created the committee,” Feehery said. “I don’t think it will be hampered by [time constraints]. I think Chris Cox will be able to hit the ground running.”

In many ways, the membership of the committee will give lawmakers a better understanding of the panel’s function. Although Cox would not name the leading candidates for the committee, its membership is expected to be made up mostly of chairmen and senior members from other panels with jurisdiction and lawmakers with helpful expertise. Knowledgeable GOP sources also noted that these same chairmen could designate surrogates to sit on the panel on their behalf.

On the other side of the aisle, Pelosi does not plan to tap the ranking members on panels with jurisdiction to the new select committee, according to knowledgeable sources. Instead, she will select from the entire Caucus to give Democratic lawmakers more opportunities to serve on some of the more coveted committees.

“One of her goals when she took over was to make sure there was a broader participation from the Caucus in our committees,” said Pelosi spokeswoman Cindy Jimenez. “So when she proceeds to select the members for Homeland Security, it will follow along the same principle.”

Although some GOP leadership aides predicted the committee would have 40 to 50 members, Cox said he prefers a smaller size, somewhere in the 30 range. Cox also said he would like to include as many appropriators as possible, an olive branch to those who will control the purse strings.

“[Chairman] Bill Young [R-Fla.] and the Appropriations Committee is the other half of the oversight function of the department. … No matter what we do with the jurisdiction of Homeland Security, appropriations will retain its jurisdiction.”

A Matter of Staff

Even though he has already started talking to experts in various fields, Cox also cannot begin to hire a staff until he has a budget and knows how many aides he can afford.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), whose job it is to decide committee budgets, met with Cox more than a week ago. Ney said all committee budgets will be written by March 31, but he could not venture a guess right now about how much the new panel will receive.

“All of this is up in the air,” Ney said. “Once he and the leaders on both sides of the aisle sit down and all come to an agreement, we will sit down and look at a budget.”

Some knowledgeable GOP sources are privately considering giving the panel a similar allocation as what the Select Intelligence Committee has received in recent years, in the range of $6.9 million. But others reject such talk, noting that some staff could be “borrowed” from other panels at least for the time being, cutting down the need for a major outlay of funds right away.

But Republican sources familiar with the nascent discussions expressed concern about failing to give the panel enough funds to be taken seriously.

“If they don’t have enough money for something the Speaker said in his opening day speech is so important, the Democrats are just going to walk away laughing,” he source said.

Democrats have already expressed serious displeasure about how the panel was created. Early in January, Hastert and his staff made an executive decision to form the panel despite nearly a year of criticism on both sides of the aisle that having one panel to oversee the biggest government overhaul in five decades would only exacerbate tensions among chairmen.

Once Democrats found out, Pelosi and several ranking members sent a letter to Hastert expressing serious concerns about the way it was established.

“While we may agree with some of your intentions in creating a new Select Committee, we regrettably had no opportunity to discuss those intentions or the structure of the new Select Committee before your proposal was presented to the full House for approval,” they wrote. “The language establishing the Select Committee is vague, raising many unanswered questions about its membership and mandate, as well as its relationship to current standing committees.”

Jimenez said Pelosi plans to talk to Hastert when the House returns this week about his vision for the new panel and then will proceed to decide which Democrats she will choose for it.

Search for Space

Finding a meeting place for the committee is another pressing question. Cox must find a secure briefing space, as much of its business will involve classified information. But space on Capitol Hill is a prickly topic with the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center creating serious headaches for leaders on both sides of the aisle.

According to GOP aides, Cox is looking at space in the Cannon House Office Building, as well as a special briefing room already outfitted to handle classified material in the Longworth House Office Building. It was the same space that Cox used when he chaired the select committee that investigated China’s alleged theft of U.S. nuclear and missile secrets.

Ney acknowledged the need for a classified briefing room space but said any decisions about where the committee will be housed are Hastert’s to make.

Despite such serious hurdles, Cox has a positive outlook about what he and the committee can accomplish.

“There is a constant level of unease in the country,” he said. “The fact that we have not had another major terrorist attack like 9/11 is in part attributable to our nascent homeland security efforts,” he said. “We will be successful if people can once again never second guess their freedom and if people look back and think of the Homeland Security Department and our committee as an unnecessary expense.”

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