[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/04/22/art.fugate0422.gi.jpg caption="Craig Fugate said Wednesday that FEMA would remain a part of the Department of Homeland Security."]
WASHINGTON (CNN) - The man tapped to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency says the agency will remain under the Department of Homeland Security. But it was not immediately clear if nominee Craig Fugate was representing only his personal opinion or administration policy.
"That debate, as far as I'm concerned, is over," Fugate said in response to a question at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday. He said FEMA will stay inside the department.
Some critics say FEMA's poor performance during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was exacerbated by its inclusion inside DHS. Those critics want FEMA to be a stand-alone agency reportable directly to the president.
But others say FEMA's mission - to provide assistance in both man-made and natural disasters - mirrors the mission of DHS, and say it belongs in the department.
In recent months, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has declined to give her own opinions, saying she had not yet discussed the matter with President Barack Obama. She said it is more important to plan on a response to the next disaster than to plan where FEMA fit on organizational charts.
Asked for clarification Wednesday, DHS spokeswoman Sara Kuban issued a similar statement: "Secretary Napolitano applauds Mr. Fugate's focus on FEMA's disaster-response mission, rather than on the very Washington question of where the agency's box is on the organizational chart."
Fugate, head of Florida's Division of Emergency Management, is widely respected in emergency management circles. The Senate Homeland Security Committee's vote on his nomination has not been scheduled.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Connecticut, and ranking member, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, both support keeping FEMA in DHS.
"Returning FEMA to its status as an independent agency would hinder efforts to reform our nation's emergency response system, create competing agencies, cause confusion among emergency responders, and undermine an all-hazards approach, leading to the perception that DHS deals with terrorism while FEMA is in charge of natural disasters," Collins said.