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The Nation

Homeland Security Bill Clears House

Cabinet: The most sweeping government reorganization in decades passes on a 295-132 vote. Bush strongly backs measure.

July 27, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House approved legislation Friday to create a Department of Homeland Security, with nearly all Republicans and many Democrats embracing the most significant government reorganization in more than 50 years.

House passage of the homeland security bill, on a 295-132 vote, came less than two months after President Bush proposed the overhaul in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The bill would create the third-largest Cabinet department, after Defense and Veterans Affairs, consolidating 22 disparate federal agencies into one focused on defending the nation against terrorism and other domestic threats.

The Bush administration issued a statement strongly supporting the House's bill, even though it would split the Immigration and Naturalization Service between the proposed security department and the Justice Department. The president prefers to move the entire agency into the new department.

In a position paper, the administration said the House bill "reflects the president's proposal" and "establishes a strong framework" to focus the government on domestic security.

The White House has threatened to veto the Senate version, which limits the administration's ability to hire and fire personnel in the department. It could come to a vote next week.

The House action capped a remarkable week in which Congress also approved landmark corporate reform legislation and an anti-terrorism spending bill and prepared to clear major trade-promotion and bankruptcy reform bills. Bush came to the Capitol on Friday afternoon to rally Republicans behind his legislative agenda.

House members begin a one-month recess today. The Senate will remain in session for another week.

However, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said Friday that efforts to pass the homeland security bill before the Senate breaks for the summer could be "in jeopardy." The bill's critics may delay action through parliamentary maneuvers, he said.

In two days of debate on the House floor, the Republican-drafted bill survived most Democratic efforts to alter it.

Twice, lawmakers voted nearly along party lines to affirm the president's power, on national security grounds, to deny collective bargaining rights to federal employees who would be moved to the new department. Currently, more than 25% of the affected employees are represented by unions.

That issue and others connected to proposed executive powers have become ideological flashpoints in a debate where most lawmakers agree on the need for a new agency.

Bush, in a blunt White House speech Friday, warned lawmakers he is "not going to accept" a bill that allows Congress to "micromanage" his administration's efforts to bolster domestic security. Yet the president said he wanted to work with such Democrats as Lieberman and Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher of Alamo, two sponsors of homeland security legislation who were in the audience.

"We're on the cusp of doing something right for America," Bush said.

House Democratic leaders complained that Republicans had rebuffed their attempts to fashion a bipartisan bill. Several opposed it, but reluctantly.

"I have some concerns about the bill," said House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who voted against it. "[That] doesn't mean I have concerns about the idea. We all know we want a Department of Homeland Security."

But House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said Congress needs to "move forward to provide the president with the tools he needs to defend the homeland." The new department, he said, would be "a comprehensive agency that's engineered to combat the dangers that are unique to our time."

In the final vote, 88 Democrats joined 207 Republicans for the bill. Opposed were 120 Democrats, 10 Republicans and two independents.

Among California's 52 House members, eight Democrats joined 19 Republicans in voting to create the department. The remaining 24 Democratic members of the state delegation, who voted against the bill, were joined inadvertently by Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield). Thomas, a strong supporter of the president's proposal, sheepishly explained on the House floor that he had accidentally cast a no vote. But the wide margin for passage belied several close fights on amendments.

Perhaps the sharpest exchange came over airport security. The GOP bill would extend by one year the Dec. 31 deadline--set by Congress last year--for airports to install bomb-detection equipment to be used on all checked bags. Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) proposed to keep the current deadline. He called his amendment a "life-or-death vote" and warned that lawmakers could be inviting disaster.

Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) faced jeers and shouts for opposing Oberstar. But Portman replied: "A lot of raising voices and yelling isn't going to get the job done." Republicans, arguing that many airports need more time, defeated Oberstar, 217 to 211.

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