WASHINGTON – The Republican-led House voted Friday to create an enormous Homeland Security Department, granting President Bush the broad personnel powers he insists are key to confronting a nimble, cunning terrorist threat.
The 295-132 vote sets up a clash with the Senate, where Democrats have prepared a version that Bush is threatening to veto on grounds it ties his hands on hiring and firing.
"A time of war is the wrong time to weaken the president's ability to protect the American people," the president said at the White House earlier in the day.
Closing House debate, Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said the new Cabinet agency "will focus the resources of this government on our safety and on our security — on the defeat of villainy."
But many Democrats were dissatisfied, saying the bill could undermine worker civil service and union protections, shroud too much information in secrecy and threaten air passenger safety.
"I know we all have a common goal. We have a different way of reaching it," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic whip.
In a statement after the bill passed, the president said the House "has shown a strong commitment to improving the security of the American people, and I urge the senators to do the same before they leave for the August recess." That break is scheduled to begin next Friday.
With the White House issuing veto threats against a Senate bill that omits those powers, the House earlier Friday voted 229-201 along party lines for a GOP amendment by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., allowing the president to waive labor union protections for specific national security reasons — a slightly higher standard than exists under current law.
The legislation merges 22 federal entities into a single, 170,000-worker department with a $38 billion budget — the biggest government reorganization since the 1940s. The Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Customs Service, Transportation Security Administration, Secret Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency are among those to be transferred.
Personnel and labor issues sparked an impassioned, partisan debate in a House narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Adding to the tensions, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney issued a statement calling Bush's veto threat "misguided."
"History has proven that guaranteeing workers their rights does not imperil national security," Sweeney said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., chief sponsor of the Senate bill Bush opposes, urged both sides to take a deep breath before the relatively minor worker issues engulfed the Homeland Security bill in political acrimony.
"Let's all tone down the rhetoric and stop sounding false alarms," Lieberman told reporters.
Shays, R-Conn., said his labor amendment represented a "sensible and reasonable compromise" between Democrats and their union allies and Republicans. The GOP says the overall bill eases some inflexible civil service and labor rules that could hamper the agency's ability to act quickly against emerging threats and replace workers who perform poorly.
"It's about agility. It's about meeting the enemy's agility with our agility," said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Democrats, however, suggested that the GOP was using the creation of the new agency to undermine strong labor and civil service protections intended to keep political favoritism and nepotism out of the federal government, guarantee pay and benefit levels and protect whistleblowers from reprisals. Their efforts to make changes, however, were defeated.
"We are supposed to be fighting terrorism. We are now fighting workers," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.
Debating over a dozen other amendments during a daylong session, the House:
• Reaffirmed on a narrow 217-211 vote a one-year delay in this year's deadline for airports to begin screening checked baggage for explosives. Opponents of the postponement — to Dec. 31, 2003 — said it would endanger the flying public, but sponsors said it would give airports time to install the necessary machinery. "Do we want chaos, or do we want order? This requires order," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation's aviation subcommittee.
• Defeated a Democratic effort to scrap the bill's exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act for information about potential vulnerabilities given to the new department voluntarily by the private sector.
• Defeated an amendment transferring authority for issuing visas to foreign visitors from the State Department to the new agency.
• Approved a provision Democrats say expands the bill's lawsuit immunity protections for companies involved in homeland security work to apply to airport screening companies, some of which may have been involved in the Sept. 11 hijackings.
The Senate version of the bill, which could reach the floor next week, does not include the administration's personnel flexibility requests. White House advisers say they would recommend a Bush veto if the Senate measure, which includes most of Bush's other priorities, prevails in the end.
"We can't be micromanaged," Bush said.
Despite the dispute, most lawmakers of both parties say that Congress will probably send Bush a bill he can sign this fall. At the White House event, Bush was seen talking privately with Lieberman.
"The president is hopeful an agreement can be reached so that a veto will not be necessary," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
The bill is H.R. 5005.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.