For months, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders have declared that creating a Department of Homeland Security is a priority.
But after four weeks of stalemate, the Senate is on the verge of postponing action on legislation to do so as it prepares to debate a White House request for a resolution authorizing possible war with Iraq.
Today, the Senate is scheduled to vote on a motion to cut off a Republican-led filibuster on homeland security and force a vote on a Democratic plan. Lacking the required 60-vote "supermajority" needed to end the filibuster, the motion is expected to fail as Republicans and Democrats split largely on party lines over a matter involving the rights of employees in the proposed department. Several similar attempts to wrap up the bill in recent days have also foundered.
Afterward, according to a Democratic leadership aide, the Senate could set aside the homeland security bill to begin debate on Iraq as early as Wednesday.
No one is ready to call the homeland security bill dead. The Republican-led House passed its version in July, and Senate Democratic leaders indicate that they will return to the issue after dealing with Iraq.
But with lawmakers at an impasse on key personnel and management issues for the new department, time is running out for compromise as Congress nears adjournment. The approach of the Nov. 5 elections is raising the political stakes even higher.
In the first national elections since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, no candidate wants to be accused of standing in the way of a federal initiative to fend off terrorist threats to cities, towns, coastal waters and national airspace.
Some senators in close-fought races, such as those in Georgia and South Dakota, may be vulnerable to such arguments, however.
Day after day, President Bush has used the White House bully pulpit to remind voters that Congress has failed to give him a bill he requested in a nationally televised speech on June 6. The president usually points to the Senate as the reason for the delay.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer reiterated the importance of the homeland security bill, which would authorize the most significant government reorganization in more than 50 years, folding all or part of 22 federal agencies into one Cabinet department with as many as 170,000 employees.
The department, larger than all others except Defense and Veterans Affairs, would take over duties now performed by the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Secret Service and other offices in the executive branch. The concept is to bring a new focus to domestic security by having all of the agencies report to one Cabinet secretary.
"It's important to protecting our country, and it's unimaginable that the Senate would fail to act on homeland security," Fleischer told reporters on Monday.
Republicans, who with few exceptions back the president, are laying plans for fierce attacks against Democrats if the bill is not finished soon. They criticize Democratic senators who oppose Bush administration proposals to preserve the president's current authority to suspend collective bargaining rights for workers in sensitive posts and to expand his authority to hire, fire, demote and promote employees in the name of fighting terrorism.
In Georgia, for instance, GOP Rep. Saxby Chambliss, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, sent the incumbent a letter on Monday urging him to do what the state's other Democratic senator, Zell Miller, has already done: back the Bush position on homeland security.
"I cannot understand why you have chosen to obstruct the president's efforts to increase our nation's security," Chambliss wrote to Cleland.
Dan Allen, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Democrats are siding "with the unions over the president's call to move things forward on homeland security. It has the potential to be an issue. People are talking about this."
Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said, "The American people want a thoughtful discussion and debate on this issue. That's why these people are elected to Congress, not to rubber-stamp things."
Democrats contend that they are not blocking the bill, and Cleland, who has co-sponsored a homeland security bill with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), depicts himself as a leader on the issue. The Democrats point out that it is the Republicans who are filibustering a Democratic-favored compromise on worker rights.
Under that compromise, brokered by Sens. John B. Breaux (D-La.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and supported by government unions, the president would have certain powers to overhaul civil service rules for the new department but would have to accept some limits on his ability to suspend collective bargaining rights.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) denounced what he called the president's refusal to bend.
The White House position, Dorgan said, "is either our way or no way, and if it's not our way, we intend to go to fund-raiser after fund-raiser and criticize" Democrats. Dorgan said congressional Democrats could claim credit as the first to push for a Homeland Security Department, proposing a government reorganization months before Bush did.
Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) replied that Bush and his Republican allies were merely holding out for a bill that would give the administration the greatest leeway in creating and managing the new department.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Janet Hook contributed to this report.