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Homeland Bill Faces Veto Threat

Security: White House claims certain provisions in the Senate Democrats' plan would result in 'micromanagement.' Move surprises sponsor.

July 26, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As Congress continued its rapid march toward action on President Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security, the White House on Thursday issued a veto threat against a bill written by Senate Democrats to create the new agency.

Late Thursday, the House opened debate on a GOP-drafted homeland security bill that is mostly to the president's liking. Lawmakers, however, faced votes on several controversial amendments. House leaders aimed to win passage of their bill today.

The rupture over the Democratic legislation surprised its main sponsor, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. Lieberman has been one of the strongest backers of the president's push to reorganize the government in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush advisors will recommend a veto if Congress approves language in Lieberman's bill that the president opposes.

Among the objectionable provisions, Fleischer told reporters, are limits on the administration's ability to hire and fire personnel in the new department and the creation of a new anti-terrorist post within the White House subject to Senate confirmation.

"That's a non-starter for this president," Fleischer warned. "That's micromanagement of the White House by the Congress."

Lieberman, who moved his legislation through committee this week, said he was dismayed.

"We have some disagreements," he told reporters. "We will continue to work on them. I can't believe frankly that the president would veto the bill over this."

Lieberman, one of the first in Congress to propose a Cabinet-level Homeland Security agency, joined with Bush to press for congressional action immediately after the president announced his own plan for such an agency June 6.

Lieberman said 90% of his bill includes what Bush proposed. For instance, he agrees with Bush that the department should include the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Customs Service, the Transportation Security Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, among other agencies.

The Senate is scheduled to debate Lieberman's bill next week. The Governmental Affairs Committee, which he heads, endorsed the bill Thursday on a 12-5 vote. Three Republicans--Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Ted Stevens of Alaska and George Voinovich of Ohio--joined all nine Democrats in favor.

While the veto threat could signal a showdown, it may also serve to reinforce Republican support for White House positions as homeland security legislation moves to the House and Senate floors.

Late Thursday, in fact, the House began to debate its own version.

Among the 26 amendments the House was scheduled to consider were proposals to keep FEMA independent, strengthen congressional oversight of a White House Homeland Security office and reaffirm congressional support of a 19th century law banning the use of federal troops for domestic law enforcement.

The last amendment, sponsored by House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), was seen as a rebuke of the White House, which earlier this month had called for a review of the military-limits law, known as "posse comitatus."

But for the most part, House Republicans said they aimed to back the president. In their opening speeches, they emphasized the potent theme of security, a rallying cry that has racked up huge majorities for other post-Sept. 11 bills.

Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry (R-Texas), arguing for the GOP bill, urged lawmakers to set aside politics.

"Remember," he said, "what we're trying to do is create an integrated Department of Homeland Security to make us safer."

Said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio): "We cannot make ourselves immune from terrorism, but we can make our country safer."

Democrats were of two minds. Many said they wanted to support the bill, but objected to GOP provisions that would limit liability for businesses that deal with homeland security and grant the administration new powers in the management of the department.

Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) called on Republicans to "join us in cleaning up this bill" in an effort to create "a strong, effective department."

Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) assailed a provision in the legislation to extend by one year a Dec. 31 deadline to install bomb-detection equipment at the nation's airports for checked baggage. "Excuses and delays will not be tolerated," he said.

But some Democrats attacked the bill as fundamentally flawed. "Basically, this is political cover over an operational problem," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio). "We don't need another federal department."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said that the legislation "may well cause more problems than it solves.... We're getting more bureaucracy and we're doing so at tremendous cost to the taxpayers."

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