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Washington — Michigan's Gary Peters has been named the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate committee that oversees federal government operations and homeland security.

Peters’ promotion on the powerful panel comes four years after he joined the committee as a freshman senator in 2015.

With the committee's broad oversight power, Peters sees an opportunity to stress U.S. security at the northern border. He also plans to continue pushing the federal government to address water contamination in Michigan and around the country by harmful PFAS chemicals.

"We will be working aggressively to put together a response to deal with that crisis," Peters said in an interview this week. 

He said he will keep pressure on the U.S. Department of Defense and other agencies to hold them accountable for their roles in addressing the crisis and ensuring a coordinated response with civilian entities that may have contaminated sites. 

Peters noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn’t show up at the committee's recent PFAS hearing in Grand Rapids, "which is simply unacceptable, and I think is an example of the Trump administration not taking this issue seriously." 

"I will continue to hold hearings and compel them to come forward because we need to have standards and they need to be standards that recognize the current science about PFAS contamination," he said. 

As the panel's ranking Democrat, Peters also expects to focus its Democratic staffers on investigations and hearings about how to make the government function more efficiently and help save taxpayer money through accountability. 

"This will be a continuation of work I've done in the past," said Peters, who has questioned Trump administration officials’ travel spending and asked over a dozen federal agencies to explain their spending.

Addressing threats posed by cybersecurity and bioterrorism will be another priority, he said.

"We have to make sure we are hardening our systems to deal with what I think is perhaps the biggest national security threat to our country," Peters said of cyber attacks. 

The Bloomfield Township Democrat introduced a bill to help local governments and small businesses strengthen their cybersecurity practices and also is pushing legislation to encourage federal agencies to better coordinate cybersecurity efforts through training across departments and sharing of ideas.

Peters would keep his seats on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Commerce Committee and the Joint Economic Committee.  

He is succeeding Missouri’s Claire McCaskill as ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security panel after McCaskill last month lost her bid for re-election.

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, who also sits on Homeland Security, has more seniority than Peters, but Carper already serves as the ranking Democrat on another Senate panel.

Peters said he has already had conversations with Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin. 

"I've had a very good relationship with Chairman Johnson," Peters said.

"I'm looking forward to having a good working relationship with him and hopefully we can show and prove that a committee can do work in a bipartisan or nonpartisan fashion to solve some of the tough problems we face."

mburke@detroitnews.com 

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