WASHINGTON – President Bush's spokesman sharply condemned the Senate and vowed a presidential veto as the chamber's Democratic majority claimed enough support to keep labor unions happy and deny him new management authority over the proposed department of homeland security.
Senate Democrats, joined by moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, appeared to have just enough votes to pass homeland-security legislation without the enhanced hiring and firing powers Bush seeks in the name of protecting the nation from terrorism.
"Make no mistake: if what the Senate (passes) in that narrow vote were to come to the president's desk it will be vetoed,'' White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
"The president will be effectively prevented from making decisions based on national security no matter how urgent a crisis we find ourselves in,'' Fleischer said.
The Senate's top Republican, Trent Lott of Mississippi, said that despite the latest veto clash, he still expected a deal would be reached — any Senate bill must still be reconciled with the House version — and the Congress would give final approval to a bill acceptable to the president.
"I predict, in the end, the product that goes to the president will be one he can sign,'' Lott told reporters.
As work on Bush's broader proposal for a new Cabinet department ground forward, the Senate voted 90-8 Tuesday to create a 10-member independent commission that would conduct a broad investigation into intelligence failures and other government missteps before the Sept. 11 attacks and recommend how to prevent future disasters.
The Sept. 11 commission idea, championed by many victims' families, gained inexorable momentum when the Bush administration last week dropped its opposition. Although differences must be worked out with a less far-reaching House version and with the White House, it is clear that a commission will be created.
"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,'' said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., a chief sponsor along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
For weeks, Bush has threatened to veto the Democratic bill creating the 170,000-employee Homeland Security Department, arguing it would not permit him to hire, fire and deploy workers quickly to meet terrorist threats or exempt them from union bargaining rights for reasons of national security.
But the president's supporters have been unable to muster enough votes in the closely divided Senate to push his measure over the top despite nearly four weeks of debate. The GOP-led House passed a version closely tracking the president's in July.
Senate Republicans, joined by a single conservative Democrat, are insisting that Bush get a clear-cut vote on the personnel issue. GOP senators and the lone Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, said they will resist efforts by Democratic leaders to force a Senate vote on only the alternative deemed more acceptable to many Democrats and their labor union allies.
"We intend to fight to make sure the president gets an up-or-down vote,'' said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.
Chafee and Democratic Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska offered a new proposal Tuesday they said could break the impasse.
"This is an important step forward,'' said Chafee, who so far is the only GOP senator to break with Bush publicly on the labor issues.
Their amendment would give Bush much of power he wants to set up a new management system at the agency. But it would also set new conditions on Bush's existing authority to remove some of the new agency's estimated 43,000 union workers from collective bargaining work rules in matters of national security.
These include requirements that the responsibilities of the workers would have materially changed, and that a majority of workers in a given federal entity were engaged in anti-terrorism intelligence or investigative work.
"The president will have to spell it out very, very clearly,'' Breaux said.
One union representing 12,000 workers endorsed the proposal as "the best compromise'' available to bridge the gap. "This compromise maintains fundamental protections for employees who will be transferred,'' said Colleen Kelly, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
Bush continued to object to Senate efforts. "The Senate feels like they want to micromanage the process,'' he said at a Republican fund-raiser Tuesday night. "Not all senators, but some senators.
"They will hamstring future administrations as to how best to protect our homeland. And I'm not going to stand for it,'' Bush said.
The Senate-created commission's probe would be much broader than a House version, which was limited mainly to post-Sept. 11 intelligence questions. The Senate panel would have authority to look into the roles of law enforcement, commercial aviation, U.S. diplomacy, border control and immigration, along with intelligence.
An initial report would be due within six months, with a final report within a year, on recommendations to prevent future attacks. The measure authorizes $3 million to cover the commission's costs.