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Senate Clashes Mount Over Homeland Security Bill

The impasse persists as Democrats and Republicans argue over management and union issues. Passage before elections seems unlikely.

October 18, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Once considered almost unstoppable, a sweeping proposal to reshape the federal government to help combat terrorism has lost its aura of inevitability and could die this year amid partisan warfare in Congress.

On Thursday, senior Senate Democrats and Republicans again clashed publicly over remaining disputes in legislation that would create a department of homeland security.

The continuing impasse centers on labor and personnel issues within the proposed agency, with Republicans wanting more power for management and Democrats wanting to preserve union rights.

As a result, a bill once embraced by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders is stuck in limbo, more than six weeks after the Senate began to debate it and more than four months after President Bush proposed it.

The bill would shift all or part of 22 federal agencies into one Cabinet superagency with roughly 170,000 employees, responsible for, among many functions, securing airports, seaports and borders.

Backers say the reorganization, which would be the most significant since the modern Defense Department was started more than 50 years ago, would help focus the government's now-splintered response to threats exposed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But with little more than two weeks left before the Nov. 5 elections and Republicans and Democrats fighting for control of Congress, chances are fading that the Senate will pass the bill before the vote.

Some advocates hold out hope for passage in a lame-duck session, but that too is iffy. Further talks on a possible compromise still are likely to prove difficult.

And both parties will be looking ahead to the start of the next Congress in January.

If the legislation is not enacted before then, it will leave little more than a legislative record as epitaph: proposed by Bush, passed the House, died in the Senate. R.I.P.

Finger-pointing has already begun on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are anxious to dodge blame for failing to act on homeland security, after last year's terrorist attacks awakened the public to previously little-noticed vulnerabilities.

In the House, which passed its version of a homeland security bill in late July, 295 to 132, Republican leaders taunt their Senate counterparts for failing to do the same.

"Al Qaeda doesn't have a Senate," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), referring to the terrorist organization.

Within the Senate, each party accuses the other of stifling compromise.

In a sharp exchange on the Senate floor Thursday, Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) noted that his party had urged the administration to create a new domestic security agency months before Bush announced his proposal on June 6 in a nationally televised speech.

Now, after Republicans had repeatedly thwarted his efforts to force action on a version Democrats favor, Daschle accused the GOP of torpedoing the legislation.

"This is a Republican filibuster, plain and simple," Daschle said. "Democrats want to finish this bill ... but the other side would rather have an issue."

Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) replied that Democrats had refused to take any steps that would cross their allies in government employee unions.

Republicans, he said, believe voters will support the president's demand for greater management powers to fight terrorism.

"We're not going to pass a homeland security bill, and Americans are going to the polls, and they're going to make a decision," Gramm said.

At issue in the dispute are arcane points of federal personnel policy that may elude many Americans.

The House-passed bill would preserve an authority presidents have held since the Carter administration to dissolve collective bargaining agreements in government agencies when a national security matter is at stake. It also would allow the president to draw up new civil service rules in several areas, giving him more leeway than he would otherwise have to hire, fire, promote, demote, deploy and classify employees.

Gramm and most Republicans, allied with a lone Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, are fighting to keep the Senate at or near the House position.

But most Democrats, joined by a breakaway Republican, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, have lined up behind an alternative.

It would force the president to make certain findings about the terrorism-fighting role of employees within the department before he could use his national security authority to dissolve collective bargaining agreements.

The Democratic position also would grant Bush some of the flexibility he seeks in civil service rule making, but would force him to consult with unions first. Disputes could be appealed to a presidentially appointed mediation board.

Bush has continually slammed Democrats for opposing him. In a speech in Atlanta on Thursday for Georgia Republicans, he said: "The Senate debate revolves around whether or not there ought to be a thick book of rules micromanaging the process."

The president repeated his pledge not to accept "a bill that will tie the hands of this president and future presidents."

Negotiators have tried for weeks to bridge the gap.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he was still working on a possible compromise with Tom Ridge, White House homeland security director. "I don't think we ought to count the bill dead," he said.

But Nelson acknowledged that the measure is in jeopardy. Noting the momentum it once enjoyed, he added: "The question is, what happened?"

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