WASHINGTON – After weeks of slow going on the creation of a Homeland Security Department, the Senate voted on two measures Tuesday that moved the process closer to completion. But dispute over workers' rights continues to hold up passage of the legislation.
The Senate voted overwhelmingly on an amendment by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to establish a 10-member independent commission appointed by Congress to broadly examine the events that led to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The House in July approved a panel limited to investigating intelligence issues.
In another vote, the Senate soundly defeated, 70-28, an amendment by Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., that would have stalled the creation of the Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department.
Byrd has been a major obstacle to passing the bill, and had wanted to require President Bush to gain additional congressional approval on the transfer to the new department of 22 federal agencies over a 13-month, three-stage process.
Even Democrats said Byrd's measure would have gutted hope of getting a new department up and running anytime soon.
"There would be no assurance in the end that anything would be transferred to the new department," said Lieberman, chief sponsor of the Democratic homeland security bill. "It would indefinitely remain a bare-bones department."
As the Senate wrestled with these amendments, negotiations continued behind the scenes to resolve the difficult problem of worker rights within the 170,000-employee department.
Bush has threatened to veto the Senate Democratic bill because it does not include Bush's demands for greater ability to hire, fire and transfer workers to meet terrorist threats. Republicans also say the bill would hamper Bush's power to exempt agency workers from union bargaining agreements for reasons of national security.
A key Democrat has broken ranks with his party and co-sponsored with Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, an alternative that gives the president exactly the authority he seeks with minor concessions to Democrats on worker rights. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., blasted his fellow Democrats for vacillating on the issue.
"Should Democrats be successful in killing this piece of legislation, or in passing a piece of legislation that does not give the president the kind of flexibility that he has to have in a time of national security, and in a time of crisis like we're in now, I think this issue is going to haunt them like Marley's ghost haunted Ebeneezer Scrooge," Miller said, referring to the classic Dickens' story, A Christmas Carol.
Miller's decision to stand with Republicans and the president would have put the margin in the Senate at an even 50-50, enough for Vice President Cheney to cast the deciding vote and pass the measure.
But then, a Republican broke ranks. Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, joined with two Democrats -- Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., in a coalition of centrists, seeking a compromise. Breaux said the coalition wants to prevent the legislation from being forced through by a tie-breaking vote.
"What we were looking at was a 50-50 tie vote in the U.S. Senate with the vice president having to come down to break a tie on an issue of homeland security, and many of us thought that was unaceptable and that what we've tried to create is an atmosphere that can create more than a 50-50 tie, in fact, can create a substaintial majority," Breaux said.
The Breaux-Chafee-Nelson proposal would give Bush much of the authority he wants to hire, fire and transfer workers, but also would erect new conditions on Bush's existing authority to exempt some of the agency's 170,000 workers from union bargaining agreements for reasons of national security.
These include requirements that the responsibilities of the workers would have materially changed, and a majority of workers in a given federal entity were engaged in anti-terrorism intelligence or investigative work.
The White House called the proposal a non-starter.
"This proposal takes away the president's existing national security authority," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House Homeland Security Office.
But Bush urged the Senate to continue to work on the bill, saying following a Cabinet meeting at the White House that "there's time to get a homeland security bill done, one which will ... give us the tools necessary to protect the homeland."
The 90-8 vote on the independent probe into the Sept. 11 terror attacks was an acknowledgement that a commission can do a better job than Congress has at getting facts about missed leads from the intelligence community.
"If we don't come to terms with the whole truth by looking back at what happened, we can never move forward with the knowledge and confidence we need to set things right," Lieberman said.
Stephen Push, leader of a group of Sept. 11 victims' families, said the families were thrilled by the solid Senate vote.
"We are trying to keep other families from suffering the way we suffered," said Push, whose wife died in the hijacked plane that rammed the Pentagon.
The commission idea gained a boost with last week's reversal by the Bush administration, which had opposed an independent panel but is now endorsing it.
The Senate-created commission's probe will be much broader than the House version, with authorization to look into the roles of law enforcement, commercial aviation, U.S. diplomacy, border control, and immigration in addition to intelligence. An initial report will be due within six months, with a final report and recommendations to prevent future attacks planned within a year.
McCain promised that the commission will not become a "witch hunt" to score political points against one administration or another, and will ge guided by telling "the truth" about how the government wasn't prepared for the threat of a catastrophic terrorist attack last year.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.