House OKs new Security Department

Lawmakers approve plan to shift 170,000 employees into anti-terrorism agency

Proposal passes 295-132

Bill limits workers' rights, unlike Senate version that Bush threatens to veto

July 27, 2002|By David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The House approved a bill last night to create a vast new department to protect the nation from terrorist attacks, in what would be the broadest reshuffling of the federal government in decades.

The Republican-controlled House passed the measure on a vote of 295-132.

The measure closely resembles the proposal that President Bush unveiled last month in calling for a new Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department, which would include 170,000 employees. But attention now shifts to the Senate, where Democrats have written a different version of the bill that the president has threatened to veto in its current form.

The president is locked in an intensifying battle with Senate Democrats over how much authority the White House should have to suspend labor protections for workers in the new department whose jobs the president deems vital to national security.

The House bill grants much of the authority Bush had sought to hire, fire and transfer employees. The House rebuffed an effort by Democrats - and Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican who represents many federal workers - to block such power as a threat to civil service protections.

"We believe that we have helped to craft a department in this government that will focus the resources of this government on our safety and our security," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, said last night.

"Should we have done that ... right, we will look back and say we had a hand in that, and aren't we proud?"

But Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said: "We have a solemn obligation to those heroes who died as martyrs to freedom, and to their families, to respond in a way that reflects the greatness of our country. I do not think the legislation before us does that.

"We have here a diminution of the right of our work force, rather than an enhancement of our civil service."

The debate is complicating a bipartisan effort to create the new department, which is partly a symbolic display around the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that the government is better equipped to prevent further terrorism.

Earlier yesterday, Bush boldly warned Senate Democrats that he would reject any final legislation that did not grant him the authority to waive some workers' rights.

The White House argues that some union protections could make it too difficult for managers in the new department to hire and fire at will, or to relocate employees quickly, when the nation's safety is at stake.

"A time of war is the wrong time to weaken the president's ability to protect the American people," Bush said, appearing at the White House with Cabinet secretaries, governors, mayors, police officers and firefighters in an effort to pressure Democrats to drop their objections.

"It is important that we have the managerial flexibility to get the job done right. We can't be micromanaged."

Maryland Republican Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Wayne T. Gilchrest and Constance A. Morella supported the bill, while Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did not vote.

Of the state's Democrats, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin voted for the bill, while Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, Steny H. Hoyer and Albert R. Wynn voted against it.

Under the House bill, the Homeland Security Department, in a drastic shift of power, would absorb 22 agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Border Patrol and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The bill heeds the president's call to harness the power and knowledge of private businesses, offering product-liability protections to companies that provide equipment to the government for the fight against terrorism. And the measure would exempt from the Freedom of Information Act some information that companies give the government about terrorist threats.

In an unexpected victory for Democrats, the House voted to bar companies that avoid paying U.S. taxes by moving their headquarters overseas from being awarded contracts with the new department. Most Republicans had opposed that provision, but began favoring it when they saw that it would succeed.

The bill would also extend by one year - until Dec. 31, 2003 - the deadline for airports to install equipment to check airline passenger luggage for bombs.

House Republicans overcame strenuous objections from Democrats over granting the president authority to suspend collective bargaining rights and to prevent employees from belonging to unions at certain times.

Early in the day, the House voted along party lines to approve an amendment crafted by Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, that gives the president power to waive union rights if he certifies that union membership would hinder the department's ability to protect the nation.

Shays' amendment would make it slightly harder for the White House to bypass labor protections.

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