WASHINGTON – Increasing pressure on the Senate in the battle over worker rights in the Homeland Security Department, President Bush said Thursday that "the enemy doesn't care about these rules" favored by many Democrats.
"They want there to be a lot of rules and regulations and I'm not going to accept that," Bush said at a Republican fund-raiser in Houston.
While softening his tone, Bush said the kind of union protections supported by the Democratic-controlled Senate already are hampering the administration's homeland security efforts.
Bush said government union leaders are preventing the Customs Service from getting emergency contact numbers from workers because of privacy concerns; making it difficult to require port inspectors to carry radiation detectors; and requiring that customs inspectors being sent to sensitive jobs overseas be chosen solely by seniority instead of by their qualifications.
"The enemy doesn't care about these rules. The Senate does and it bothers me," Bush said. "Don't get me wrong. There's fine senators from both parties who care deeply about our country. ... But it is essential, for the sake of protecting America, that we not allow special interests to drive the process."
The rhetoric came as others in the White House and congressional Republicans said proposed compromise legislation would eliminate powers that presidents have had since the Carter administration.
Tom Ridge, the White House homeland security chief, said the Democratic-backed proposal uses "a fog of words" to erect unacceptable limits on the president's ability to waive union bargaining agreements for reasons of national security. That power, dating originally to a 1962 executive order issued by President Kennedy, has existed in law since 1978.
"Americans expect the new department to cut through red tape so the very best people can be hired and placed in the right jobs with the right pay," Ridge told the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "A time of war is no time to limit the president's ability to protect national security."
The stalemate over labor rights is blocking a decisive Senate vote on a bill that would merge 22 agencies and transfer 170,000 employees, including 43,000 covered by union agreements, into a new Cabinet department tasked with protecting Americans from terrorism at home.
Democratic leaders tried again Thursday to end debate, now in its fourth week, but failed in a pair of votes -- 50-49 and 53-44 -- to gain the 60 necessary. That means debate will drag on into next week, to the frustration of many who say the nation is still unprepared to confront terrorists.
"Let's get this done," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., chief sponsor of the main Democratic bill. "We remain dangerously disorganized in the federal government."
Sponsors of the Democratic-backed compromise insisted that it would not change Bush's authority to waive union bargaining agreements but it would create a new hurdle: that their duties have "materially changed" and that their "primary duty" must be related to anti-terrorism intelligence or investigation.
Democrats said those were relatively minor changes intended only to provide employees a minimal level of protection against the loss of hard-won union rights. They blamed the White House and congressional Republicans for delaying a final vote on the compromise, which otherwise represents agreement on a broad range of other issues.
"I can't believe that the president or the Republicans are saying, 'If we can't get our way on the way we're going to treat employees ... then we don't want a bill,"' said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.
But Republicans said the president must have unfettered union waiver authority in order to respond quickly to emerging terrorist threats. They said Bush deserved a straightforward up-or-down vote on his bill, which preserves that power without strings.
"We cannot give the president a law that will not get the job done," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. "We can't give him this beautiful, shiny pickup truck with no steering wheel."
To illustrate his point, Gramm released a Sept. 18 complaint from the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 12,000 Customs Service workers, involving the administration's color-coded system of terrorism threat alerts. Gramm said the complaint to the Federal Labor Relations Authority showed the obstacles that unions can pose.
But the union's president, Colleen Kelley, said the complaint was intended to put the Customs Service on notice that the union is supposed to be briefed in advance about changes affecting its members.
"I think the example is exaggerated and inappropriate," Kelley said.
The standoff has increased concern that Congress will be unable to pass the homeland security bill this year, or at least before the Nov. 5 elections. Lawmakers hope to adjourn by Oct. 11, but they may return for a lame-duck session to finish spending bills and other legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters that he may temporarily suspend work on homeland security in order to debate and vote on an Iraq use-of-force resolution, but he added: "My hope and expectation is we'll finish homeland security."
After appearing with GOP leaders on Capitol Hill to urge action, Ridge also said that negotiations would continue on the critical union issue.
"I know lines have been drawn in the sand, but I'm still hopeful. We're so close," he said.