WASHINGTON -- An Oregon senator said yesterday that he intends to block the nomination of Maryland's former homeland security director to a senior Federal Emergency Management Agency post, in an attempt to force the Homeland Security Department to carry out an emergency response program that Congress ordered five years ago.
The pawn in this Washington standoff is Dennis Schrader, who was homeland security director under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Schrader was nominated in April to be the deputy administrator for national preparedness, a new position created when Congress recently overhauled FEMA.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said he is holding up Schrader's nomination over the department's "inexcusable" failure to establish a team of volunteer technology experts who could be called upon in a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
"We hope this will be a wake-up call to the agency," Wyden said in an interview.
Under Senate rules, a single senator can stop a presidential nomination from moving forward for any reason, by placing a hold on the nomination when it comes to the floor for a vote. Simply announcing the intent to block a nomination often stalls the process.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said Wyden's action would hamper the department's work.
"It's horribly unfortunate and truly unnecessary for the senator to take the steps that he's taking," he said. Knocke said the hold hurts the department's employees by depriving them of a leader, not because of his "qualifications for the job but because of a [senator's] particular pet project."
Wyden said he is acting with "considerable reluctance" but believes it is necessary to get the department to focus on the emergency-response program. He added that the person who is currently filling the vacancy - the third-ranking official at FEMA - has been performing ably for months.
The emergency-response program, dubbed NET Guard, would create a database of technology specialists around the country who volunteer to help rebuild communications networks and provide technical support in a disaster. Wyden included a provision to establish the program in the 2002 legislation creating the department.
Wyden said that NET Guard "is right at the heart" of what Homeland Security should be doing, adding that it would have proved a critical asset during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when an inability to communicate crippled attempts to rescue thousands stranded across the region.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff promised Wyden 30 months ago, when the Senate was weighing his own nomination, that he would expedite the program's launch.
"He sat in my office and said we're going to get this up and running," Wyden said. "At some point, you say to yourself that the agency's word ought to stand for something."
Wyden said he has been told several times that the department would launch the program, but "they have been unwilling to do so."
A senior department official said the department is "a few weeks" away from completing a pilot program for NET Guard. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced.
But Wyden, who last met with department staff on this issue before Memorial Day, said Homeland Security has continually told him it would soon establish the program - but never followed through.
NET Guard would be particularly useful after a catastrophic disaster, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security specialist at the Heritage Foundation: "This is a great idea."
She said holding a nomination hostage is a reasonable tool to use to focus the department's attention on the program, given Chertoff's vow to Wyden - adding that it will probably work.
"I suspect that the secretary and the senator will have a conversation," she said, "and this nomination will move."