President Bush has won a significant victory as lawmakers get closer to final approval of compromise legislation to create a new government department for homeland security. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives Wednesday approved by a vote of 299 to 121 a revised bill, and the Senate is expected to follow suit.
Perhaps the most hotly debated legislation since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush's plan to create a cabinet level security department was held up by partisan political bickering.
A White House backed version passed in the Republican controlled House last July. But it stalled in what was then a Democrat controlled Senate over the issue of labor rights for the 170,000 people expected to work in the new department.
After the midterm election last month, President Bush used his new political clout to press Congress to finish the job.
Tuesday, key Senate Democrats met with White House officials to put the compromise into final form.
Trent Lott, the Senate Republican leader, credits President Bush for insisting that Congress complete action. "A lot of us were thinking, oh we will hit the ground very quickly and we will be gone," he said. "The President said no, homeland security was not just about an election, homeland security is about the security of the people here at home. We're going to do this. You should not leave town. And, we said, yes Mr. President, you're right, we're going to get it done."
In House debate, Democrats insisted that the revised bill still threatens workers rights. Republicans disagreed, as in this exchange between New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone and Ohio Republican Rob Portman:
PALLONE: "It doesn't go far enough to ensure the rights of workers in this new department, to collectively bargain."
PORTMAN: "He said it destroys the rights to collectively bargain. That's not in here. In fact it guarantees the right to collectively bargain."
The homeland security bill now goes back to the soon-to-be Republican controlled Senate for debate and a final vote there.
The new department constitutes the largest reorganization of the federal government since the 1940s. It will comprise workers from 22 existing agencies. But there have been some changes to accommodate concerns over workers issues.
The revised bill requires a new Secretary of Homeland Security to negotiate any changes in personnel policies with unions. If negotiations fail, and higher mediation is unsuccessful, the changes could be implemented.
The president would retain authority to terminate union rights if he determines they are, in the language of the bill, "having a substantial, adverse impact on Homeland Security." But he must notify Congress at least 10 days before such a decision takes effect.
Before the compromise was reached, President Bush sought to reassure Senate Democrats and prospective employees of the new department. "The rights of federal workers should be and will fully be protected in the Department of Homeland Security," he said. "Every employee will be treated fairly, and protected from discrimination. The men and women who work in that department will need and want leadership that can act quickly and decisively, without getting bogged down in endless disputes."
House passage of the security department bill came as lawmakers aim for early adjournment of the current "lame duck" session (interim, before the newly elected Congress meets next year).
President Bush wants lawmakers to approve other unfinished work. The House Wednesday passed a continuing resolution to fund government operations until next year, but may leave incomplete another important bill on terrorism insurance.
The recent midterm election gave Republicans a strengthened majority in the House, and gives Republicans the majority in the Senate when the new 108th Congress convenes in early January.