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New Energy in Congress Over Homeland Security Bill

Fresh momentum for creating the Cabinet agency shows President Bush's enhanced clout after elections gave GOP control of both houses.

November 11, 2002|Nick Anderson and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Congress and President Bush are nearing a breakthrough on long-stalled legislation to create a new Cabinet department for domestic security, top Republican and Democratic lawmakers said Sunday.

The fresh momentum for a Department of Homeland Security reflects Bush's enhanced clout after last week's elections gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress.

The homeland security bill has languished in the Democrat-led Senate for months as the two parties fought over the degree of authority the proposed department's management would have to confront labor unions and shake up civil service rules. Republicans sided with management -- that is, Bush -- and Democrats with the unions.

Now the legislation has new life, and probably on terms closer to Bush's liking. The White House and senior lawmakers worked through the weekend on a compromise. If enacted, the bill to create the third-largest Cabinet department would be the centerpiece of a lame-duck session of the 107th Congress set to begin Tuesday.

Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said Sunday that a deal on homeland security could come this week. "We're very close," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"We hope by Tuesday or Wednesday we would have a bill that could be passed by the Senate by a wide margin."

Lott, who will be majority leader when the 108th Congress begins in January, could take over that position from Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as early as Tuesday.

Daschle, appearing with Lott on "Meet the Press," also indicated that the bill is likely to move. He said Republicans had filibustered to block the bill before the election in a political calculation to win votes. One Republican candidate, Rep. Saxby Chambliss, won a Senate election in Georgia after attacking the Democratic incumbent, Max Cleland, for failing to back Bush.

"Now we've got to get the job done," Daschle said. "Now the games should be over."

No details about the negotiations were available.

Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, also told NBC: "They've got to pass that homeland security bill. We'd like to see it done. I think it can happen."

But homeland security is far from the only matter before the lame-duck Congress. There is a backlog of unfinished business -- including a handful of other terrorism-related bills, 11 spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and more than 80 judicial and executive nominations.

The Senate also faces an immediate question: Who's in charge?

Tuesday's midterm elections gave Republicans a majority of at least 228 seats in the 435-member House and at least 51 seats in the 100-member Senate -- with a Senate race in Louisiana to be settled in a Dec. 7 runoff and a handful of outcomes in the House uncertain.

But those GOP majorities will not be in place until January. It's unclear who will run the Senate when the lame-duck session begins. That's because an interim senator from Minnesota, independent Dean Barkley, will be sworn in Tuesday to fill out the term of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash last month.

Barkley's arrival gives the lame-duck Senate 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats and two independents. The other independent, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, votes with Democrats.

Barkley has not decided whether to side with the Republicans or the Democrats or to remain neutral, his spokesman David Ruth said Sunday.

If he aligns with Republicans, Lott would become the majority leader because Vice President Dick Cheney, who presides over the Senate, has the power to break ties. If Barkley aligns with Democrats or stays neutral, Daschle would remain majority leader for at least several days.

By January, or sooner, Barkley will be succeeded by the newly elected Republican from Minnesota, Norm Coleman.

Another Republican, Sen.-elect Jim Talent of Missouri, will take his seat soon. Because Jean Carnahan, the Democrat he defeated, was appointed rather than elected to the Senate, Talent is expected to be sworn in within the next 12 days, after his election results are certified. His arrival would definitely hand Lott the majority leadership.

But there is one more potential complication: The GOP's Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, who last week was elected governor of Alaska, is to resign his seat before he is sworn in Dec. 2. He will then have to wait five days to name a GOP successor. That could again leave control of the Senate briefly up to Barkley.

As majority leader, Lott would have the power to call up bills or nominations, although Democrats could seek to block him through a filibuster. With neither side having the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster, Daschle and Lott have said they expect to work by consensus during the lame-duck session.

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