U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, who is in the midst of a tough re-election battle, sent a letter to President Bush this week, but it was no "thank you" note.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, who is in the midst of a tough re-election battle, sent a letter to President Bush this week, but it was no “thank you” note.

On Tuesday, Reichert, R-Auburn, wrote the White House, complaining that Bush is weakening a key provision in a new homeland-security bill to prevent inexperienced political cronies from running the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

After signing the legislation, which passed Congress last month, Bush issued “signing statements” that said he could ignore provisions that set minimum qualifications for the FEMA administrator and allow the administrator to directly advise Congress.

The qualifications provision, Bush wrote: “rules out a large portion of those persons best qualified by experience and knowledge to fill the office.”

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But Reichert pointed out in his letter that five major investigations into FEMA’s handling of Hurricane Katrina “identified similar shortcomings in the federal government’s response, including the lack of former FEMA Director Michael Brown’s emergency management experience.”

“The federal government’s credibility hangs in the balance,” said Reichert, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

A bipartisan group of senators, including Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, voiced similar criticisms last week.

Reichert is being challenged by Democrat Darcy Burner, who has tried to tie the first-term congressman to Bush through her ads and statements. Reichert has pointed to votes he has made that bucked the Republican leadership and the Bush administration.

As approved by Congress on Sept. 29, the homeland-security bill requires that the president nominate a candidate with at least five years executive experience and “a demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management.”

It also gives the FEMA administrator a direct line to Congress, similar to that of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to recommend improvements to emergency-management response.

Bush signed the law Oct. 4 at a high-profile Arizona event, saying it strengthened FEMA.

The signing statement was released quietly several hours later, negating nearly 40 provisions as unconstitutional limits on the presidential prerogatives.

Such signing statements, in which Bush says he is not obligated to follow each precept in laws he enacts, are controversial because they place the executive branch above congressional mandates.

Reichert, the House GOP’s point person for FEMA reform, did not learn about the signing statement until days later.

The bill that Reichert pushed also would make FEMA semi-autonomous but keep it in the Department of Homeland Security — under the Homeland Security Committee’s jurisdiction.

That was an unpopular position with the powerful chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who wanted to make the agency independent.

In June, news reports predicted that Young’s panel would win that fight in the House and ultimately control some of the billions in homeland-security grant money.

The turf war culminated in mid-July in a battle in the office of Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. Reichert ultimately prevailed.

However, he lost on a different issue when he agreed to strip money for grants that would help standardized communications among firefighters and police officers, so they could more easily talk together in a disaster.

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com

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