On the eve of the Sept. 11 anniversary, House Democrats have adopted a new strategy that will step up criticism of President Bush’s efforts to improve homeland security against future terrorist attacks.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), flanked by the national security leaders in her caucus, unveiled a comprehensive plan Friday that was months in the making.
Democrats have high hopes that their new proposal will quell complaints in some Democratic quarters that the caucus should adopt a more aggressive posture in criticizing the administration. The blueprint will allow Democrats to draw upon a unified set of principles and priorities as they ratchet up their criticism of the administration, aides said.
While the new plan will lay the groundwork for escalating criticism of the president, Democrats do not want to appear overly partisan on a day of national mourning and will not begin implementing specifics until next week, aides and lawmakers said.
“As necessary and appropriate as our ceremonies of remembrance will be, this should also be a time for an honest evaluation of how well we have done in the past two years in reducing our exposure to another terrorist event,” Pelosi said.
She charged that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Tom Ridge’s assertion that America is safer today than it was on Sept. 10, 2001, “sets the bar far to low.”
“Our priorities include enhancing protection of our borders, securing sensitive nuclear and chemical plants, improving the coordination of our intelligence and improving the resources of our first responders,” she said.
Republicans responded to the Democratic line of attack by reciting numerous accomplishments in the administration’s war on terror. They also dismissed it as partisan posturing.
“It’s unfortunate that there are those who merely offer criticisms instead of concrete solutions on how they can work with the Department of Homeland Security to make America safer,” said Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the DHS.
While Democrats plan to continue their push for additional first responder funding, they said their new strategy would facilitate criticism of the administration that extends beyond that issue.
However, they will continue to make funding for first responders a top priority and will be introducing legislation on the issue next week, a Democratic aide said.
The renewed Democratic critique comes on the heels of other reports criticizing the administration on homeland security. In June, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report charging that the administration had drastically underfunded emergency responders. Then in July, the Public Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, released a “Homeland Security Report Card” entitled “America at Risk.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), also speaking at Friday’s press conference, cited the Council on Foreign Relations report to bolster his own argument about underfunding of first responders, quoting from the report: “The United States remains dangerously ill prepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil.”
Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), the ranking member on the Select Committee for Homeland Security, said Democrats would call on the administration to develop a unified terrorist watch list, put more agents on the borders and keep track of every foreign visitor who enters and exits America.
“We must move faster and stronger to close security gaps now,” Turner said.
He continued: “Tough rhetoric is not enough. Our terrorist enemies will not wait and neither can we — homeland security must be a genuine priority. We present today a bold strategy to put the security of the American people first.”
“Only 2 to 4 percent of the containers that come into our major ports — and are shipped on trucks and trains throughout the country — have secured contents,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).
“That’s inexcusable,” he said.
The Customs Service has established international inspection stations to screen shipments to the United States to augment its domestic port inspection stations.
Republicans varied in how they should respond to what appeared to be a new Democratic line of attack. Most agreed that Democrats were seeking to politicize the issue and would do so at their own peril.
“Unfortunately, the actions the Washington Democrat leadership is taking in reaction to political criticism makes it apparent they look at America and see impotence, weakness and fear,” said Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
Roy said that last year, many Democrats voted against establishing the Department of Homeland Security.
“We support a meaningful homeland security initiative. It’s called the president’s Department of Homeland Security and Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Roy said.