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Homeland Security Bill Clears House

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The House approved legislation Friday to create a Department of Homeland Security, with nearly all Republicans and many Democrats embracing the most significant government reorganization in more than 50 years.

House passage of the homeland security bill, on a 295-132 vote, came less than two months after President Bush proposed the overhaul in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The bill would create the third-largest Cabinet department, after Defense and Veterans Affairs, consolidating 22 disparate federal agencies into one focused on defending the nation against terrorism and other domestic threats.

The Bush administration issued a statement strongly supporting the House’s bill, even though it would split the Immigration and Naturalization Service between the proposed security department and the Justice Department. The president prefers to move the entire agency into the new department.

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In a position paper, the administration said the House bill “reflects the president’s proposal” and “establishes a strong framework” to focus the government on domestic security.

The White House has threatened to veto the Senate version, which limits the administration’s ability to hire and fire personnel in the department. It could come to a vote next week.

The House action capped a remarkable week in which Congress also approved landmark corporate reform legislation and an anti-terrorism spending bill and prepared to clear major trade-promotion and bankruptcy reform bills. Bush came to the Capitol on Friday afternoon to rally Republicans behind his legislative agenda.

House members begin a one-month recess today. The Senate will remain in session for another week.

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However, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said Friday that efforts to pass the homeland security bill before the Senate breaks for the summer could be “in jeopardy.” The bill’s critics may delay action through parliamentary maneuvers, he said.

In two days of debate on the House floor, the Republican-drafted bill survived most Democratic efforts to alter it.

Twice, lawmakers voted nearly along party lines to affirm the president’s power, on national security grounds, to deny collective bargaining rights to federal employees who would be moved to the new department. Currently, more than 25% of the affected employees are represented by unions.

That issue and others connected to proposed executive powers have become ideological flashpoints in a debate where most lawmakers agree on the need for a new agency.

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Bush, in a blunt White House speech Friday, warned lawmakers he is “not going to accept” a bill that allows Congress to “micromanage” his administration’s efforts to bolster domestic security. Yet the president said he wanted to work with such Democrats as Lieberman and Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher of Alamo, two sponsors of homeland security legislation who were in the audience.

“We’re on the cusp of doing something right for America,” Bush said.

House Democratic leaders complained that Republicans had rebuffed their attempts to fashion a bipartisan bill. Several opposed it, but reluctantly.

“I have some concerns about the bill,” said House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who voted against it. "[That] doesn’t mean I have concerns about the idea. We all know we want a Department of Homeland Security.”

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But House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said Congress needs to “move forward to provide the president with the tools he needs to defend the homeland.” The new department, he said, would be “a comprehensive agency that’s engineered to combat the dangers that are unique to our time.”

In the final vote, 88 Democrats joined 207 Republicans for the bill. Opposed were 120 Democrats, 10 Republicans and two independents.

Among California’s 52 House members, eight Democrats joined 19 Republicans in voting to create the department. The remaining 24 Democratic members of the state delegation, who voted against the bill, were joined inadvertently by Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield). Thomas, a strong supporter of the president’s proposal, sheepishly explained on the House floor that he had accidentally cast a no vote. But the wide margin for passage belied several close fights on amendments.

Perhaps the sharpest exchange came over airport security. The GOP bill would extend by one year the Dec. 31 deadline--set by Congress last year--for airports to install bomb-detection equipment to be used on all checked bags. Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) proposed to keep the current deadline. He called his amendment a “life-or-death vote” and warned that lawmakers could be inviting disaster.

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Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) faced jeers and shouts for opposing Oberstar. But Portman replied: “A lot of raising voices and yelling isn’t going to get the job done.” Republicans, arguing that many airports need more time, defeated Oberstar, 217 to 211.

By a 215-214 vote, Republicans defeated a Democratic effort to remove a provision in the bill that would limit liability for businesses that supply homeland security products. On top of that, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), chief sponsor of the bill, won approval for an amendment that expands the bill’s liability protections to airport security companies. It drew bitter Democratic opposition.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) called the Armey amendment “the most irresponsible position I can imagine.... There must be a payoff.” Armey angrily dismissed what he called a “sophomorish allegation.”

Democrats complained that Republicans were catering to corporate interests; Republicans shot back that their foes were beholden to trial lawyers.

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By a 222-208 vote, Republicans killed an amendment to ensure collective bargaining rights for the roughly 50,000 employees represented by labor unions who would move to the new department. Instead, the House passed, 229 to 201, an amendment that would allow the president to waive those rights in cases in which he justifies, in writing, on the grounds of national security concerns. Republicans, echoing Bush, said that every president since Jimmy Carter has been able to exercise a national security waiver of federal labor relations law.

Despite the partisan acrimony, Republicans drew large blocs of Democrats to defend the core of the Bush plan, indicating that many turf battles over the reorganization have subsided.

For instance, lawmakers easily defeated amendments to keep the Federal Emergency Management Agency out of the new department and to make the White House anti-terrorism advisor subject to Senate confirmation.

Both proposals could have drawn a Bush veto.

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The votes in favor of the scope of the reorganization gave strong momentum to the plan Bush unveiled on June 6 to move about 169,000 federal employees into a department with an annual budget of $37 billion.

Few now doubt that the new department will include such agencies as the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, FEMA or the Customs Service--all of which have strong allies on Capitol Hill that initially protested the transfer. That development increases the likelihood that Bush will be able to sign a bill later this year comparable to the one that helped create the modern Pentagon and intelligence agencies in 1947.

Whether a new department would improve domestic security is a question critics will continue to ask. Some lawmakers noted during this week’s debate that the creation of the departments of Energy in 1977 and Education in 1979 did not solve the nation’s energy problems or eliminate public school troubles.

But advocates claimed the new department would help mobilize a post-Sept. 11 America to prevent terrorist attacks.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Comparing Security Plans

Here are highlights of a House-passed bill to create a Department of Homeland Security, compared with the White House proposal and a Democratic version approved this week by a Senate committee.

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Size: President Bush proposed the creation of a department with about 169,000 employees from 22 agencies, including the Customs Service, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

So far, Congress largely agrees with that structure. But the House bill, like the Senate draft, would trim more than 5,000 Agriculture Department employees from the Bush plan. The House also would keep several thousand Immigration and Naturalization Service employees in the Justice Department.

Immigration: Bush would move the INS into a border and transportation security unit within the new department. The Senate bill would move the INS into the department but make it a separate division. The House bill would split the INS, moving border and immigration enforcement functions (the bulk of the service) into homeland security but leaving immigration services in the Justice Department.

Employee rights: Bush proposed giving the department authority to craft a “flexible, contemporary” alternative to the existing civil service system. The House bill would preserve some flexibility for the president but enumerate a range of worker rights, including whistle-blower protections. The Senate bill would go further, guaranteeing collective bargaining rights.

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Aviation security: The House bill would extend for one year the Dec. 31 federal deadline for installing bomb-detection equipment in airports to screen baggage. Neither Bush nor the Senate Democrats have proposed such an extension.

Privacy: The House bill, unlike Bush’s proposal, would add an officer to the department to guard privacy rights, ban a national ID card and kill a federal initiative to encourage anti-terrorist tipsters. The Senate version includes a privacy officer.

Sources: White House, Congress, Times report.

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Times staff writers Edwin Chen and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.


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