(CNSNews.com) - In a nationwide address Thursday night, President Bush announced what he called "the most extensive reorganization of our government since the 1940s,"one that will give his Office of Homeland Security cabinet-level status.
"Tonight, I ask the Congress to join me in creating a single, permanent department with an overriding and urgent mission: securing the American homeland and protecting the American people," Bush said.
Press reports said the new Department of Homeland Security would be second only to the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs in terms of the number of employees.
It would take the following agencies under its wing: Coast Guard, Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs Service, and the new Transportation Security Administration.
If Congress approves the plan, the new Cabinet agency would be responsible for border and transportation security; emergency preparedness and response; bioterrorism countermeasures; and protection of the infrastructure.
The president said the country faces "an urgent need and we must move quickly this year before the end of congressional session."
When the news broke on Thursday, various reporters suggested that President Bush was making the announcement now to deflect attention away from various congressional hearings on U.S. intelligence failures that happened on Bush's watch.
But the White House said the planned government overhaul has been in the works for months.
Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose friendship Bush repeatedly has lauded, questioned the need for a major government restructuring: "The question is whether shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic is the way to go," Kennedy reportedly said on Thursday.
Other lawmakers, including Democrats, were supportive of Bush's proposal.
Devil's in the details?
On Friday, the day after Bush formally announced his intention to reorganize the government, there was speculation about the plan's details and the turf battles that would inevitably ensue in a town where no one gives up power willingly.
The CQ Daily Monitor , a briefing on congressional activities, quoted lawmakers as saying that Bush's proposal "will pit committee chairman against each other in a fight to claim a leading role in forming and overseeing the new department."
According to the Daily Monitor , lawmakers agree that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, headed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and the House Government Reform Committee, headed by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) would be the two committees responsible for turning Bush's proposal into law.
Burton took the lead Thursday night: "As chairman of the committee responsible for government reorganization, I look forward to working with the president and the administration on bipartisan legislation to restructure the government so that a well-calculated response to protecting America's homeland will be put in place."
The White House reportedly will send government overhaul legislation to Congress later this month.
Reaction from the homeland
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, president, U.S. Conference of Mayors, said his group supports the president's government reoganization proposal.
"We believe this new plan will help improve coordination and cooperation. We hope it will also improve intelligence information sharing. We will continue to work with the Administration and Congress to bring much needed federal resources directly to cities and our first responders," he said in a statement.
Newspapers generally positive
Liberal newspapers such as the Washington Post on Friday said President Bush "set the right course" by elevating the Office of Homeland Security to Cabinet status. The newspaper's lead editorial also urged Congress to "take a hard look at the specifics of the proposal."
But in general, the Washington Post editorial congratulated President Bush, saying his proposal "is significant most of all because it recognizes that the threat of terrorism is not transitory."
However, in a front-page "news analysis," the Washington Post described Bush's proposal as "a bid to regain the initiative." The news analysis noted that Bush is no longer immune to questions and criticism about what happened before and after Sept. 11.
The New York Times suggested that Bush's proposal is an attempt to deflect criticism of his administration. The newspaper's front-page headline on Friday read, "Bush, As Terror Inquiry Swirls, Seeks a Cabinet Post On Security."
In its "news analysis," the New York Times said the White House was moving "to regain initiative" (same phrase the Washington Post's news analysis used), now that its intelligence lapses are under scrutiny.
A New York Times editorial gave Bush grudging criticism: "President Bush belatedly but wisely told the nation last night that an ambitious reorganization of the government was needed to get the job done."
The Times editorial saw one danger with the proposal - "that it might set up new rivalries in a bureaucracy already choking with conflict." The editorial also warned of "new turf battles."