WASHINGTON – On the road for a day of fund-raising, President Bush continued to press for a congressional resolution of support for action against Iraq and a vote on legislation that would create a Department of Homeland Security.
Homeland security legislation is being held up by debate over whether government workers will keep their civil service protections. The president has enjoyed the opportunity to shift employees in times of national security, but said additional labor rules would tie his hands when it comes to short-notice attempts to adjust the department according to new threats.
He said Friday that the problem already presented itself when the government tried to require Customs Service inspectors to wear radiation detection devices.
"The union that represents the Customs workers objected," Bush said during a speech for Colorado congressional candidate Bob Beauprez. "They didn't think that was right. They sought to invoke collective bargaining, which would have taken at least a year to resolve. We don't have a year to resolve issues like that. See, we need to be able to move quickly. We need to be able to respond."
Republicans are also lobbying the public for support on the bill, suggesting the homeland security bill is stalled because labor unions call the shots for Democrats in election years, so Democrats won't give Bush the flexibility he wants on personnel in the new department.
"Obviously Democrats are not going to let a bill go through that these public sector unions are not satisfied with," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Friday.
The GOP points out that in this election cycle, public sector unions that represent federal workers have given more than $5.3 million to Democrats in Congress while Republicans have received $800,000.
Democrats insist they are trying to protect both the homeland and workers' rights, but unions worry a deal is unraveling and they could be blamed for it.
"It is possible that nothing happens and I think that will be very sad," said Colleen Kelley, who runs the National Treasury Employees Union.
The union has filed unfair labor practice complaints against the Bush administration since the war on terror began. In one, the union objected to the demand that Customs Service workers supply home phone numbers.
That got the president's attention.
"Our job -- in order to locate employees in cases of emergency, the Customs Service thought to have employees provide their home addresses or their telephone numbers to the Customs Service (inaudible) if there needed to be a quick response, we needed to have their numbers available. Union objected and said, 'Such a request would violate the privacy rights of workers.' We're in a different time here in America. In this case, the union filed a grievance and sought to negotiate something as sensible as this request," Bush said.
Another greivance by the union was noted by Lott."The National Treasury Employees Union has filed a lawsuit because they did not get consulted over the color coding of alerts for the American people. Now that shows you some of the ridiculousness of what you know some of these public sector unions are doing," Lott said.
Kelley said Lott has mischaracterized the complaint. "That is not true, that is not what this complaint is about."
She said her union, the NTEU, was not told in advance that job descriptions were being changed by the Customs Service."They issued this directive to employees without notice to NTEU and providing an opportunity for a briefing and questions and an opportunity for negotiations," Kelley said.
Lott said that under existing law, the president can cite national security and wave union protections to get things done. But that is unsatisfactory to Kelly."The status quo in the middle has provided the opportunity for the president to issue an executive order to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of employees, which he used in the Justice Department just a few months ago," she said.
What alarms the unions is that some Justice Department officials were trying to organize a union and the president, citing national security reasons, jumped in at the last minute with an executive order preventing it. The unions claim that in the process, some existing union members were stripped of their protections.
The labor movement has pointed to that case ever since as proof that the president is a union buster. The admin says the president was only trying to protect the nation.
Fox News' Wendell Goler and Carl Cameron contributed to this report.