Negotiators fine-tune homeland security deal
WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a sign of President Bush's post-election muscle, congressional negotiators have reached a deal to create a homeland security department, ending a stalemate between Democrats and Republicans and earning a nod from the White House.
"This legislation meets our requirements and gives the president the authority and flexibility he needs to protect the America people, and we are hopeful that Congress will get the legislation to him by the holidays," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Officials said the Republican-controlled House is likely to pass the measure sometime Wednesday. The Senate, currently controlled by Democrats, is expected to begin debate, although final passage could be delayed into next week.
According to a description of the agreement circulating on Capitol Hill, the bill would take a small step to address complaints by Senate Democrats that the agency's workers would lack sufficient job protection.
It would require the department to negotiate any workplace changes with the employees' union and require federal mediation if no agreement was reached. But in the end, the department could make whatever changes it wanted - the flexibility the president has sought.
The agreement came as lawmakers scrambled to complete work in a lame-duck session that followed last week's stunning congressional victories for Republicans, who retained control of the House while taking back the reins of the Senate.
Armed with that power, GOP lawmakers were to elect their leadership teams Wednesday. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois will remain the party's top congressional leaders.
Passage of the homeland security legislation would be the first show of Republicans' new congressional power, and it would give a major legislative victory to Bush, who has made its completion a top priority.
"I believe we can get this done. I believe Congress can show the country that they can finish their work on a high note of achievement," Bush said Tuesday after a day of meetings spent prodding congressional leaders to complete the bill.
The measure would combine nearly two dozen federal agencies into a new department. They would include the Coast Guard, Customs Service, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and much of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The Republican-controlled House on July 26 passed a bill creating a department largely along the lines Bush envisioned, but the Senate version stalled as Democrats fought for tougher union rights for the agency's workers.
The latest compromise measure includes language that would allow airline pilots to be armed in cockpits, another proposal that became popular after the Sept. 11 attacks. Initial versions of that plan have already passed the House and Senate, but the two chambers have not finished a compromise bill.
The bill would also allow a one-year delay in the Jan. 1 deadline for airports to screen all luggage for explosives, and let the new agency do business with American companies that move offshore to avoid U.S. taxes if there are national or economic security reasons to do so, congressional aides said.
The bill would drop Senate language that would have established an
independent commission to investigate why U.S. authorities failed
to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, congressional aides said.
"There may be differences of opinion on different components of the legislation but there is no disagreement that we need to complete our work on this bill promptly," Daschle, D-S.D., said in a written statement.
In other business, congressional leaders were moving to postpone action on spending bills until at least January. Lawmakers plan to push legislation this week that would keep agencies open until Jan. 11 to give House and Senate appropriators more time to complete spending bills.
Only two of the 13 spending bills for the federal budget year that started Oct. 1 have been approved, and the current temporary measure expires Nov. 22.
House and Senate Democrats are expected to elect their party leaders on Thursday. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California is expected to be voted minority leader in the House, replacing Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who is stepping down. Daschle is expected to be re-elected by Senate Democrats.
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