ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Sen. Ted Stevens said he doesn't want to see the Coast Guard compromise its search-and-rescue missions or its patrols of U.S. fishing grounds as it assumes a new role in domestic defense.
''There are missions that are absolutely vital to our total nation, particularly vital to our state of Alaska, which has half the coastline of the United States,'' Stevens said Thursday at a Senate hearing on the president's plan to create a new Department of Homeland Security.
The Coast Guard would be a large component of the new department, which would also include the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service and the Border Patrol, as well as the recently created Transportation Security Administration.
Stevens said he doesn't oppose the creation of the new department, but told Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge he wants to ensure that the Coast Guard's traditional missions aren't shortchanged.
In Alaska, the Coast Guard's biggest mission is search and rescue, followed by fisheries patrol and maintenance of buoys and other navigation aids. It has 1,800 active-duty members in the state, 11 ships, and two air stations, in Kodiak and Sitka.
It would be wrong, Stevens said, to make the Coast Guard abandon its traditional rescue role. He also said he wouldn't want the Coast Guard to let up on illegal fishing.
''If the result of this legislation is to take the Coast Guard off of that mission we would lose the largest biomass of fish that has the greatest productivity for the future of the world,'' Stevens said.
He said after the hearing he would like to create two divisions within the Coast Guard: one for homeland security, and one for the agency's other responsibilities.
Ridge assured the senators the Coast Guard would continue its many missions. He said the president understands the agency's needs are growing and has proposed it get a large budget increase.
Some lawmakers, though, have questioned whether the new department can really do the job without hundreds of millions of new dollars. White House officials have said the reorganization will break even, with savings from administrative consolidation offsetting new costs.
The department reshuffling threatened to create a turf war on Capitol Hill, where committee leaders are reluctant to give up the jurisdiction they now have over the various departments.
Alaska Rep. Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, pledged last week to stop the entire homeland security bill in its tracks if he isn't satisfied that it would leave the Coast Guard able to continue its regular duties.
''I can stop it from happening, very frankly,'' Young told NBC News.
The House, though, decided Wednesday to avoid turf fights by denying the committees their usual dominion over this bill. Instead, the panels will forward their recommendations to a special committee, which will present the bill to the full House next month.
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