Senate Clears Way for Creation of Homeland Security Dept.

W By Nick Anderson

wASHINGTON – The Senate overwhelmingly approved the most sweeping government shake-up in a half-century on Tuesday, passing a bill that will create a new Cabinet department responsible for reducing the nation’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

The Senate vote, 90-9, followed House passage last week of a virtually identical measure to forge a Department of Homeland Security out of two dozen government agencies.

For the first time, one government agency will be responsible for coordinating protection of the nation’s borders, coastlines, airports, landmarks, utilities and other major facilities, both public and private. The new agency, expected to have more than 170,000 employees, will also help lead the nation’s defense against potential chemical, biological or nuclear attacks by terrorists.

Bush pushed hard for the bill following the Republican triumph in this fall’s midterm elections, and Tuesday’s action handed him a major victory as the 107th Congress drew to a close with several key Senate votes.

He will sign the homeland security bill as soon as lawmakers iron out minor differences between the Senate and House versions and send it to the White House.

The bill’s enactment will set in motion the most extensive reorganization of the executive branch since the creation of the modern Defense Department and intelligence agencies in the late 1940s.

That change was a major legacy of World War II and the Cold War. The new homeland security agency is part of Washington’s response to last year’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In a telephone call from Air Force One while flying to Prague for a NATO summit, Bush congratulated Republican leaders as the bill neared passage.

“We’re making great progress in the war on terror,” Bush said via speakerphone. “Part of that progress will be the ability for us to protect the American people at home. This is a very important piece of legislation.”

After the bill’s passage, the Senate moved toward conclusion of the lame-duck congressional session that began last week. It confirmed a conservative Bush nominated for the federal appellate court, Dennis W. Shedd, and gave final congressional approval to a bill making the government the insurer of last resort for terrorist attacks.

Late Tuesday, the Senate approved a stopgap budget bill for a raft of government agencies, leaving decisions on increased spending proposals for the new Congress. That finished the Senate’s business for the year; the House completed its work last week.

The 108th Congress will convene on Jan. 7.

In launching the new security agency, the Bush administration will face fresh challenges: appointing and winning confirmation of the department’s leading officials and finding enough money to make the department work.

Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who serves as White House director of homeland security, is the leading candidate to head the new Cabinet department.

Funding for the agency, projected to have an annual budget of more than $38 billion, is a major question. Congress failed this year to approve billions of dollars Bush and lawmakers from both parties had sought to bolster security programs that will be coordinated by the new agency. Leading Republicans say they will act on the funding proposals as soon as the new Congress convenes.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., one of the first lawmakers to propose a homeland security agency that would merge various functions, said the new department would help bring coherence to a scattershot federal anti-terrorism effort – one often criticized for failing to connect crucial pieces of intelligence and then act on them.

“The dots are going to be on one board at this department, and that’s going to help our government see the terrorist threats before they attack, and therefore, to stop them,” Lieberman said.

The bill will take effect 60 days after Bush signs it. And when the 15th Cabinet department opens for business, the new secretary of Homeland Security will oversee employees drawn from two dozen agencies now scattered throughout the federal government. Only the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments will have more personnel.

Operating under the new department’s umbrella will be the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs Service – agencies responsible for securing airports, coastal waters and incoming cargo, respectively.

The beleaguered Immigration and Naturalization Service will be officially abolished and its functions split into two bureaus within the new department, one to guard borders and the other to serve immigrants.

Other department components include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, responsible for disaster relief, and the Secret Service, in charge of guarding the president and spearheading security measures at major national events.

Notably absent from the department’s jurisdiction were two agencies that have been criticized for intelligence and law-enforcement breakdowns that preceded the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes: the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Lawmakers critical of the CIA and FBI may target them for overhaul in the next Congress.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., fought the bill from the beginning and opposed it to the end.

“The nation will have this unfortunate creature, this behemoth, this bureaucratic bag of tricks,” Byrd said. “And it will hulk across the landscape of this city, touting its new mission and eagerly gobbling up tax dollars for all manner of things, many of which have nothing to do with saving the lives of American people.”

Voting for the bill were 48 Republicans, 41 Democrats and independent Sen. Dean Barkley of Minnesota. Opposing it were eight Democrats and independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska, did not vote.

The vote came after the Senate narrowly rejected a Democratic amendment to strip several special-interest provisions from the legislation, a proposal Republicans said could have derailed the bill.

As it was, the bill’s final passage culminated a lengthy and at times clamorous debate that began shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

One of Bush’s first acts following the attacks was to name Ridge to coordinate federal anti-terror efforts from within the White House. But Democrats, led by Lieberman, clamored for more. They wanted a new Cabinet officer with budget authority and power to give orders to far-flung security personnel.

Bush initially resisted. But in a nationally televised address on June 6, the president shifted course. He embraced the idea of a new department and unveiled a massive reorganization plan that had been a closely kept secret.