WASHINGTON – A Senate committee Wednesday backed off a proposal to grant the new Homeland Security Department broad new intelligence capabilities amid fears it could become an all-powerful controller of sensitive information.
On a voice vote, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee made a major modification to legislation sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman to ensure that the president has the ultimate say over raw data and other information collected by the CIA, FBI and others.
The original bill would have gone well beyond President Bush's proposal by permitting the homeland security secretary to require these intelligence agencies to provide requested data without presidential approval.
The initial measure also specifically stated that intelligence agencies must support the new homeland security agency. But that language was toned down to require only cooperation and communication.
"I think some of the fundamental differences we started with have been eliminated," said Lieberman, D-Conn., who is chairman of the committee.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., spoke for several senators in urging that the panel go slowly on overhauling the intelligence agencies, particularly with a continuing congressional investigation into pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures.
"I don't think we can do that in this bill," Thompson said.
The committee planned to consider dozens of other amendments later Wednesday on legislation creating the giant new agency, which would combine 22 agencies and 170,000 employees into a single Cabinet entity. The full House planned to begin debating its version Thursday.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said he thought lawmakers were coming to a consensus.
"We're very well on the way to getting agreement on the homeland security bill," he said Wednesday on CNN. The aim is to make the government more efficient in "how we protect this country," the Illinois Republican said.
Lieberman agreed the measure would, in the end, probably win strong support. "There remains a broad, bipartisan concern that we've got to create the new department," he said.
Another roadblock involves personnel issues. Bush met Tuesday at the White House with 30 Republicans and Democrats to stress the need for agility to confront an ever-changing terrorist threat.
"It must have personnel abilities to make certain that people are trained and trained well, and if they're not, they need to be able to bring people on who can do the job and do it right," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Bush wants the new Homeland Security secretary to have latitude to develop a new personnel system that would allow vacancies to be filled quickly and job assignments to be changed rapidly. Department leaders should be able to "reassign those who cannot adapt," said Kay James, Bush's director of personnel management.
To Democrats, this sounds like an assault on union collective bargaining protections and the cherished civil service. That system was designed to prevent political influence and cronyism in the federal government and allow whistle-blowers to disclose wrongdoing without fear of reprisal.
Lieberman said Democrats would prefer to leave the personnel questions for later to pass the legislation quickly. Lawmakers hope to get a bill to Bush perhaps as early as Sept. 11.
"If we try to change that, it's going to really slow up the bill," Lieberman said. "It would be better if we not force a bitter and divisive fight on this now."
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said Bush should veto the bill if it doesn't include the personnel changes.
"The president asked for a freer hand to fight terrorism. This bill handcuffs him," Gramm said.
The House legislation, set to be debated beginning Thursday, attempts at compromise by prohibiting any change in several key worker protections while allowing flexibility in pay, performance appraisals and job classifications. Democrats said they remain opposed.
Bush also wants the ability to transfer within the department up to 5 percent of its annual budget, contending this is necessary to respond quickly to emerging or unforeseen threats. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have balked at that: the House bill permits transfer of only 2 percent for the first two years.