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Actions in Senate Imperil Bill on Homeland Security

Terrorism: Democrats offer new compromise on worker rights. GOP rejects the idea.

September 26, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Legislation to create a new Cabinet department for homeland security edged deeper into peril Wednesday as key senators and the White House traded accusations over who would be at fault if the bill falls apart.

With no end in sight to the Senate debate, now in its fourth week, Democrats pushed a new compromise on rights for workers in the proposed department. But Republicans said it was a nonstarter.

In a sign of jeopardy for the bill--one of President Bush's top priorities--party leaders on both sides warned of a legislative collapse if a deal cannot be struck.

"It would be a shame to let this go down the drain," Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, told reporters. "It appears to me that they [Republicans] do not want homeland security. I'm dumbfounded."

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) asserted that Democrats must give Bush more flexibility to manage the proposed department, unencumbered by the usual government rules.

"If we're not going to do it right ... then we shouldn't do it," Lott warned. "And let the American people decide who's to blame for that."

Bush and most congressional Republicans say the leadership of the new department, which would have as many as 170,000 employees, must be given maximum leeway to hire, fire, demote and promote its workers. They also are seeking to loosen civil service rules on pay rates, job classifications and other personnel matters in an effort to create a system that would enable a quick response to terrorist threats.

Most Democrats and a few Republicans back the opposing position of government employee unions. They say that the legislation, to be effective, should not demoralize the employees that would staff the new department.

The compromise offered Wednesday, prepared by a centrist Republican, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Democratic Sens. John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, would grant Bush some flexibility on civil service rules but would limit his ability to waive collective bargaining rights for certain employees within the department. Republicans, though, complain that such limits would undermine Bush's authority in a time of war.

But White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush would veto the bill if it includes the compromise language.

"If homeland security does not pass in the Senate, it will be true that the Senate will not have acted to protect the American people's security," Fleischer said.

As the rhetoric escalated, stalemate prevailed on the Senate floor. Efforts to schedule votes on the key labor-management issue foundered as Republicans and Democrats jousted in a series of parliamentary maneuvers.

Republicans, allied with maverick Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, sought to force the Senate to vote first on an administration-backed plan. Democrats, backed by the Republican Chafee, insisted on voting first on their plan.

A senior Democratic leadership aide put the party's position bluntly: "When [Republicans] get the majority, they'll get to vote first. It's as simple as that."

Wednesday's developments could be mostly bluster as the two sides grope for a deal. It would be a monumental surprise if Congress fails to approve a homeland security bill before it adjourns for the year. The House passed its version in July.

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Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.

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