US President George W. Bush is launching the biggest government reorganization in more than 50 years, signing legislation creating a new Department of Homeland Security.
Bush was naming current homeland security chief Tom Ridge to head the department and Navy Secretary Gordon England to be his deputy at the bill-signing ceremony yesterday.
The new Cabinet department -- an idea Bush initially opposed -- will swallow 22 existing agencies with combined budgets of about US$40 billion and employ 170,000 workers, the most sweeping federal reorganization since the Defense Department's birth in 1947.
The president planned to "thank Congress for its bold and historic action in creating a new department largely along the lines of his proposal," said Gordon Johndroe, Ridge's spokesman. The department will have "one primary mission -- protecting the American people, and it will allow 170,000 people to work more efficiently and effectively than ever before."
Bush proposed the new department last June, saying it was needed to provide a united front against the terrorist threat to the nation. The plan came at a time when the administration was facing questions on what it knew about the terrorists before they struck on Sept. 11 last year.
The bill became snarled in partisan disputes on Capitol Hill, with Democrats refusing to grant the president the broad powers he sought to hire, fire and move workers in the new department.
Bush would not yield, and made the disagreement a political issue, railing against Democrats as he campaigned for Republican candidates through the fall. Democrats reversed course after their election-day loss of Senate control was attributed partly to the homeland security fight.
Johndroe said the new department's leadership structure will be in place within three months, but it will be many more months before the new agency is fully off the ground.
Signing the homeland security bill ends an odyssey for legislation that started inching through Congress nearly a year ago against Bush's opposition, only to see him offer his own version after momentum became unstoppable.
The road to passing the homeland security bill was tortuous to the end.
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi phoned House Speaker Dennis Hastert in Turkey and won his pledge that Congress next year will reconsider three provisions that moderates opposed.
One provision permits the federal government to do business with American companies that have moved their operations abroad to sidestep US taxes.
Another measure legally shields drug companies already sued over ingredients used in vaccines. Democrats said this includes claims that mercury-based preservatives have caused autism in children.
Also re-examined will be a section that helps Texas A&M University win homeland security research money. The district of incoming House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is near Texas A&M.