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GOP Gains Democratic Ally in Homeland Security Fight

Legislation: Sen. Zell Miller joins Republican Gramm on compromise to end labor dispute.

September 20, 2002|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Seeking to turn up the heat on the Democratic-led Senate to approve President Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security, Republicans rolled out a new weapon Thursday: a Democrat.

Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) joined Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) in proposing a compromise to end a dispute over labor rights that has sidetracked the homeland security legislation.

Miller, a conservative who earned a scolding last year from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for joining Republicans in supporting Bush's tax cut, took the unusual step of publicly excoriating his own party for the disagreement over homeland security.

"We are not doing our party any good by feeding the perception that Democrats are undermining the president of the United States on the war on terrorism," Miller said at a news conference. "The purpose of homeland security should be to protect lives, not jobs."

Welcoming Democratic support, Bush called on lawmakers, before they head home early next month, to approve legislation that would give him broad power to hire, fire and transfer employees in the massive new department.

"We're at a time of war, and the Senate shouldn't be making it harder for an administration, whether it be this one or future administrations, in terms of doing their job," Bush said.

But the compromise offered by Miller did not have any immediate effect in breaking the legislative logjam.

Senate Democrats pressed ahead to try to pass their version of the homeland security bill, which the White House has threatened to veto. But with a 50-49 vote, they fell short of the 60 votes needed to limit debate and bring their version up for consideration. That means the debate will continue indefinitely. A vote on the proposed compromise could come next week.

Ironically, Republicans--who have assailed Democrats for moving too slowly--opposed limiting debate because it would have prevented them from trying to fashion a bill more to Bush's liking.

The debate, now in its third week, is a sign of the legislative gridlock pervading the Capitol as the fall elections near.

"No one wants to be against a governmental reorganization that the president says is essential to preventing future terrorist attacks," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "But now, the realities of Senate and election politics are settling in. Bush believes that the GOP can batter Democrats if this bill is deep-sixed for any reason. Democrats are loath to alienate their labor and public employee allies so close to Nov. 5, especially when they are providing many of the troops for election day."

Don Kettl, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who studies federal administration, said: "In the end, neither party will want to face the voters without a Homeland Security Department in place."

One amendment to the bill, approved Thursday, would increase the maximum sentence to 20 years in prison for a cyber-attack that causes serious injury and life imprisonment for an attack that causes death.

Currently, the maximum penalty is 10 years' imprisonment for a cyber-attack that causes serious injury or death.

Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) launched a drive Thursday to amend the bill to create an independent commission to examine intelligence lapses surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a move adamantly opposed by the White House.

The homeland security bill, approved by the Republican-controlled House in July, would set in motion the most significant governmental reorganization of the last half-century, merging all or parts of more than 20 federal agencies--from the Coast Guard to the Customs Service--to create the third-largest Cabinet department, after Defense and Veterans Affairs, with as many as 170,000 employees.

The measure is one of a broad range of issues--from bankruptcy reform to proposals to thin forests to cut the threat of wildfires--that is stalled in Congress, with lawmakers preferring to do nothing than risk offending one of their constituencies so close to an election.

The Gramm-Miller compromise offered Thursday would give the president the right to waive work rules for national security reasons provided Congress is notified in advance.

Miller said that the administration needs a "streamlined personnel system that can react quickly to meet the challenges of these dangerous times, not one that takes five months to hire a new employee and more than a year to fire a bad employee; not one where a federal worker can come to work knee-walking drunk and he can't be fired for 30 days."

But the initial reaction to the proposal from labor-friendly Democrats was cool.

Democrats have accused the administration of exaggerating the need for loosening employees' labor rights and say they want to preserve civil service protections for workers, many of them represented by unions.

Diane Witiak, a spokeswoman for the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, said the Gramm-Miller measure would give the president authority to "strip collective bargaining rights and civil service protections" of employees.

Lieberman, the chief architect of the Senate bill, said that the Democratic measure would give the administration all the management flexibility it needs--something that the White House disputes.

But he said there should also be limits to how much power Congress cedes to the president.

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