THE BATTLE OVER RIDGE
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott was put in an awkward position Monday when the Senate Appropriations Committee released a letter signed by chairman Robert Byrd and ranking Republican Ted Stevens “inviting” Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge to testify. Ridge, because he is not a Senate confirmed office holder, declined. It is at least the third time he has turned down an invitation to testify in the Senate. And Democratic senators, especially, are growing increasingly frustrated.
“Ridge is on TV every night, backing up the President, making recommendations, enforcing policies,” says a Democratic Appropriations staffer. “Yet he isn’t being held accountable. What is he recommending? Is it working? Where is all of the money going? Who will ensure it is being spent correctly? These are questions that we want answered.”
Appropriations controls tens of millions of dollars that the Bush administration is asking be budgeted for at least five federal agencies. Homeland Security and Ridge are responsible for making recommendations on how those federal agencies might spend the money. But the Office of Homeland Security itself is comparatively small. Ridge is technically an adviser to the president, similar in stature to senior advisers Karl Rove or Karen Hughes.
Now Republican leader Lott has been thrown into the ongoing battle over Ridge. The White House requested that Lott run interference for Ridge, asking that Republicans not support forcing Ridge to testify. Why?
“Good question,” says a Republican Appropriations aide. “We don’t know. We’re guessing that Ridge doesn’t have all the answers and it might be embarrassing having him go up against a Byrd or a Daschle. We haven’t really heard from Lott or the White House.”
Republicans probably will hear from them now. With Stevens signing on with Byrd, a patina of bipartisanship now exists to compel — read subpoena — Ridge to visit Capitol Hill. And Lott is angry. “We could not have been clearer about what we wanted from Stevens or any senior Republican on committees,” says a Lott staffer. “But I guess Stevens is being Stevens. We’ll let the White House figure it all out.”
It’s embarrassing for Lott, one more signal that his influence among colleagues is waning.
“It’s not surprising,” says another Republican leadership aide. “His ability to keep his people in line has been suspect for months. This just came at a bad time. Byrd can be dogged about these things and this could become a news event.” That’s putting it mildly. Any subpoena of Ridge would be treated as another setback for a president increasingly under fire from an assertive Democratic Senate.
Ex-prez Bill Clinton promised to put the spotlight on Harlem when he moved his offices uptown, and for once he’s been as good as his word: He has persuaded pal Terry McAuliffe to hold a Democratic National Committee event at the Apollo Theater in Harlem this April. Clinton will headline the event, as will new pal, comedian Chris Tucker. Clinton is also said to be helping recruit musical acts, including several high-profile rap artists.
“They want to appeal to the next generation of voter,” says a DNC fundraiser. “They will have to have some rap on the stage to do that. Also, they want to sell this to a network, so there have to be high-profile names to make prime-time.” The pre-9/11 world is returning with a vengeance.
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