Campaign help doesn't change Morella's plans

She still fights to amend Bush's homeland proposal

July 25, 2002|By David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Last month, President Bush helped raise $400,000 for Rep. Constance A. Morella's re-election campaign and praised the Maryland Republican as "an independent soul" who is "gracious enough to explain to you when she thinks you're wrong."

Living up to her presidential billing - and, as always, unhesitant to buck her own party - Morella is trying to block Bush from setting up a new homeland security agency the way he wants to. Like many in Congress, most of them Democrats, she is concerned that Bush's plan would threaten civil service workers' rights, including their freedom to belong to unions, if they are placed in the new agency.

Morella, among the most endangered Republican incumbents in this year's election battle for control of the House, represents thousands of federal employees in her Montgomery County district. She is fighting to offer an amendment, perhaps as early as today, to scale back Bush's plan. If approved, it would frustrate the president's ability to limit collective bargaining rights of federal workers in cases in which he believes their jobs are critical to national security.

In an interview, Morella happily recalled Bush's comments at her fund-raiser when he praised her as independent-minded.

"This does demonstrate my independence," she said. Morella went on to say that she did not think Bush would take this latest fight against him personally.

Morella said she has been pressured by the White House - including a phone call from Bush's chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr. - to drop or at least weaken her amendment. She said she has no plans to back down.

"I like these people," she said, referring to Bush and his White House team. "I get along with them quite well. But I have to do this for my constituents."

White House aides protest that Morella is trying to strip the president of authority he already has over existing federal agencies. One administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that as Bush lobbies lawmakers on his homeland security plan, defeating Morella's amendment was among the president's "top concerns."

In addition to her initiative, Morella has joined other lawmakers - again, mostly Democrats - in demanding that other labor provisions be removed from Bush's proposal, including one that would allow the homeland security department to suspend many protections for civil servants.

"We're talking about an incredibly important piece of legislation," Bush said yesterday, as he met at the White House for the second day in a row with Congress members before a vote that could come as early as today. "It's really a piece of legislation to make America a safer place."

The fight over union membership centers around a law that allows a president to suspend a federal worker's right to belong to a union if the employee is involved in intelligence gathering or other national security work.

Since the main purpose of the 170,000-employee homeland security department is to deal with national security, Morella says that that would give the president carte blanche to deny all of its federal workers union rights.

Under Morella's amendment, federal workers who are shifted to the new department from existing agencies would be allowed to belong to a union. Only those who are given new duties that relate specifically to the war on terrorism would be subject to having their right to join a union taken away by the president.

Morella, one of the two or three most liberal Republicans in Congress, often parts ways with Republican presidents on policy matters and tries to distance herself from the party's conservative mainstream.

Still, in the midst of the toughest battle ever to keep a seat she has held since 1987, she welcomed the president's political help. Morella is the third individual house member Bush has campaigned for in this year's elections.

An aide to Morella said the lawmaker believes Bush has a poor record on protecting federal workers' rights. "We can't just trust them when federal employee rights have been continually chipped away by the administration" the aide said. "We'll be friends with the president at the end of the day. But this was a fight we had to fight."

As an indication of how determined the White House and the Republican leadership were to stop Morella, the House Rules Committee was considering a plan last night to keep her from introducing her amendment. Even if she is blocked from bringing the matter to a House vote, a similar provision is expected to be considered by the Senate when it takes up the matter next week.

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