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Homeland Security Hits Snag at Wire

Senate Democrats seek to kill special-interest provisions, which could lead to delay in passage of bill. The move prompts heated debate.

November 19, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With a vote expected today, the Senate is sharply divided on a Democratic proposal to strip a handful of special-interest provisions from a bill that would create a new homeland security agency.

The amendment's approval could trip up the bill just short of the finish line; rejection would clear the way for the Senate to send the bill to President Bush.

In another scenario, the Republican-led House could bow to any Senate revisions and wave the bill on to the White House. Or the House could insist on further negotiations, delaying -- and perhaps jeopardizing -- the measure Bush has pressed the lame-duck Congress to pass.

No matter what happens, the Democratic amendment has prompted a heated debate over legal protections for vaccine makers and other businesses at a moment when Bush stands on the verge of achieving the most significant government reorganization since the start of the Cold War.

At issue are seven provisions in a House-passed homeland security bill. They include liability protections for certain industries, a waiver of open-meeting law, a potential break for firms that move overseas to avoid U.S. taxes and a plan for a research center that may be aimed at a lawmaker-favored university.

Senate Democrats criticize most of these provisions as gifts to big business that have nothing to do with the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security to defend against terrorism.

The provision that has drawn the most attention would grant liability protection to Eli Lilly and Co. and other drug firms that make a mercury-based vaccine preservative. Several suits have alleged that such preservatives cause autism in children.

Several Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, have attacked the provision.

But some prominent Republicans and the White House have said it is necessary if drug makers are to join the war on terrorism with products meant to thwart biological attacks.

Other senators have criticized the provision, but they so far have stopped short of saying they would vote for the amendment to delete it from the bill.

The swing votes include independent Sen. Dean Barkley of Minnesota, whose short tenure in office as the successor to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) will end with the lame-duck session.

Also undecided as of Monday were GOP Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Susan Collins of Maine.

Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) is expected to side with Republican leaders in opposition to the amendment, said his spokeswoman, Camille Osborne. Miller has consistently backed the White House on the bill.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to vote for the amendment, said his spokesman, Marshall Wittmann. He said McCain believes the controversial provisions in the House bill are "a poor way to do business."

Republican and Democratic aides said Monday that the vote appears to be too close to call. Democrats would need a simple majority to pass the amendment.

The security bill would establish an anti-terrorism agency with roughly 170,000 employees, drawn from 22 federal agencies now scattered throughout the government. The department would include the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Secret Service and other agencies.

But the bill would be derailed if the two houses of Congress failed to agree on final language. And some congressional Republicans are pledging a fight if the Senate amends the measure.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said Monday that the Republican leadership would be willing to call the House -- which has all but adjourned for the year -- back to Washington to push for its version of the bill.

The House approved the measure last week, 299 to 121. That vote came after Democrats yielded much of the flexibility that Bush sought for the personnel rules that would govern the new agency.

During the fall campaign, Bush continually criticized Senate Democratic leaders for letting the disagreement over personnel rules hold up action on the bill. DeLay echoed that argument in comments on the current dispute.

"By thwarting the new Homeland Security Department, Daschle's continued obstruction ignores the American people's unmistakable demand to grant President Bush the authority to strengthen the country," DeLay said.

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