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Select Homeland Security Committee Faces Hurdles

House Democrats contend that the new Select Homeland Security Committee, which is supposed to be smoothing over jurisdictional disputes, is getting mired in turf battles of its own. “It’s a zero — we haven’t done anything,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) claimed about the high-profile committee, which features numerous chairmen and two ranking members from other committees.

It’s exactly that makeup of senior lawmakers that has some insiders wondering if panelists are more concerned about safeguarding their own jurisdiction at other panels than overseeing the new Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s about the next Congress,” one Republican committee member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said of the jockeying on the panel.

The lawmaker was referring to the fact that one of the panel’s mandates is to figure out how to convert itself from a “select” committee into a permanent one in the 109th Congress — complete with jurisdiction plucked from other committees.

Among its 50 members, the Homeland Security panel boasts such heavyweights as Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.), Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) and Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.). The panel also includes two Democratic ranking members, Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.) of the intelligence panel and Frank from Financial Services.

“Turf is in the woodwork around here,” Harman said. “Congress’ organization is part of the problem. Fixing it will require some people to win and some to lose. And in a group of winners, that’s hard to swallow.”

But Harman praised Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) for his efforts thus far and recognized he’s in a tough spot trying to get so many other powerful lawmakers on board.

“He’s the chairman of the chairs — he’s the super chair,” she said.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who sits on the panel, conceded “there is a lot to sort through.” But he also went out of his way to say that Cox is the right man for the job.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) was also reluctant to criticize anyone, but he did say, “The faster we can get it moving, the better.”

Cox himself stressed that the committee has marked up a bill making technical corrections to the law establishing the Department of Homeland Security. He said it should reach the House floor this week or next week.

Furthermore, he wants the committee to report out a bill before the August recess that would make substantive changes to the law, leaving open the possibility that it could be a major overhaul or a minor one.

Cox noted that the “cross-jurisdictional cooperation has been very good,” pointing to the joint Homeland Security Committee/Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on project Bioshield — an administration vaccination initiative — as an example. He added that every subcommittee has met several times.

But Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), the panel’s ranking member, said the full committee has yet to hold a hearing and needs to pick up the pace.

“Maybe there’s been a sense that this a new department and we should let it find its sea legs,” Turner said. “But we’re talking about a serious matter and the American people deserve accountability.”

Cox said the committee will call Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in to testify about the department’s progress soon. But Turner said that should have already happened.

Despite the fact that the department’s 100th day is fast approaching, Turner said, “we don’t know how well we’re doing” on homeland security.

Turner noted that on April 7 he sent the department a letter inquiring why it failed to submit three required reports to Congress and has yet to get a response.

“The informal grace period is measured in days and weeks, not in months and years,” said Cox, who agreed the excuse that the department is still getting settled is wearing thin.

Cox signaled his own frustration with the department in a statement Friday. He said that the creation of the Terrorism Threat Integration Center at the Central Intelligence Agency “in no way reduces the statutory obligations of the department to build its own analytic capability.”

Some Democrats say that protecting one’s fiefdom is only half the problem, the other is the administration.

“The administration does not like oversight,” Frank said.

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