The House of Representatives has approved (295-132) legislation to combine more than 20 government agencies into a new homeland security department to protect against terrorism. The House gave President Bush most of the wide powers he was seeking, to manage employees of the new cabinet-level department.
Friday's debate in the House and its final vote took place against the backdrop of uncertainty after a veto threat by President Bush.
The day began with the President warning he would reject any bill arriving on his desk from Congress that fails to provide maximum flexibility to manage 170,000 employees of the new department. "I'm not going to accept legislation that limits or weakens the President's well-established authorities, authorities to exempt parts of government from federal-labor management relations statute, when it serves our national interest," he said.
The President's threat was aimed not at the House, but at the Senate's version of the bill. Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman described himself as disappointed and shocked, and said Mr. Bush is getting 90 percent of what he originally asked for: "The bottom line is that the new department, as we have designed it, has the tools it needs to attract, maintain and reward top flight talent, to protect our security," he said.
The President and Republican lawmakers deny his plan would undermine workers rights. But the issue dominated debate in the House, as in these comments by Republican Christopher Shays, and Democrat Albert Wynn:
Shays: "It would be absolutely unbelievable if we would give the president less power to fight terrorism, when we are dealing with these issues."
Wynn: "We cannot expect our fellow employees to protect homeland security, if we undermine their employment security."
The House defeated an amendment that would have denied the President power to waive civil service protections for national security reasons.
Republicans also resisted democratic proposals to strengthen protection for "whistle-blowers" (people revealing wrongdoing or inefficiency). Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, and Texas Republican Mac Thornberry debated the issue.
Kucinich: "Congress must be able to receive the insights of security guards, border patrol agents, policemen, military and others who may need to expose security weaknesses to Congress."
Thornberry: "Whistleblowers are protected in the legislation now!"
The House bill would transfer a number of independent agencies into the new homeland department, including the Secret Service, Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Agency, Customs Service and Border Patrol.
It aims to strengthen border security, improve coordination and information sharing with the FBI and CIA, and strengthen defenses against chemical, biological or nuclear attacks.
However, lawmakers remain worried the new $38 billion department will be neither successful in helping avert new terrorist attacks, nor cost-effective.
The Democrat-controlled Senate is under pressure to approve its own bill before the August recess. But with President Bush sticking to his position, and Senate republicans predicting a tough fight on the bill next week. Prospects remain, for now, somewhat uncertain.