Homeland Security Office Moves Closer to Reality

Moving on twin tracks Thursday, a Senate committee worked to put the finishing touches on legislation creating President Bush's Homeland Security Department while House leaders prepared to begin two days of debate.

Republicans and Democrats in the House were negotiating the terms of debate, with Democrats seeking rules that would provide them the maximum opportunity to offer some of the roughly 100 amendments introduced.

Rep. Dick Gephardt, the House Democratic leader, said lawmakers would eventually agree on a debate "that is fair and bipartisan and allows the House to work its will on all the big important issues."

The House was expected to begin debate on the measure late Thursday, with final passage not likely until Friday at the earliest.

Across Capitol Hill, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee was nearing a final vote on its version after approving an amendment sought by coastal-state senators to ensure that the Coast Guard's non-security missions would be protected in the new agency. Senate debate is planned for next week.

Though there are major differences and some flaring partisan disputes, most lawmakers believe these will be resolved in the end to create the 170,000-employee Cabinet agency tasked with protecting Americans at home.

"On 85 to 90 percent of this bill, we're pretty much in agreement," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee.

Both bills would give Bush most of the agencies he wants to transfer, including the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Border Patrol, Customs Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the just-created Transportation Security Administration.

Assuming the House and Senate act in time, lawmakers say informal talks could resolve many differences while Congress is away on its August recess.

"There's a lot of talk about trying to reconcile the two during the break," said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. "Hopefully we can find some consensus."

Meeting with Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday at the White House, Bush kept up the pressure for swift action on "an incredibly important piece of legislation ... to make America a safer place."

Even so, some pitched battles await the House and Senate. Democrats adamantly oppose Bush's request for personnel flexibility in the new agency, saying it amounts to an assault on union collective bargaining and the civil service system. Bush and his GOP allies say it's vital to quickly meet emerging terrorist threats.

Many lawmakers from coastal states oppose transferring the Coast Guard. The Governmental Affairs Committee approved an amendment Thursday that would move the agency with language protecting ensuring that duties such as marine search-and-rescue and fisheries management remain top priorities.

"What we are trying to do is safeguard the vital, life-and-death, traditional missions of the Coast Guard," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Another controversy involves proposed exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act regarding vulnerabilities disclosed by private businesses, which critics say keeps too many secrets. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee approved a compromise restricting the exemptions to specific records given only to the new department.

Democrats also said they would attempt to remove a provision in the House bill that delays by one year a requirement that airports screen checked luggage for explosives.

The Senate committee, meanwhile, decided Wednesday to tone down provisions in its bill that critics feared would have granted the new department broad powers over the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies.

The legislation still would create an intelligence division whose analysis would cover all aspects of American life. Bush's plan focused on critical industries, public works and transportation systems.