WASHINGTON – The Senate was unable Tuesday to break the labor rights stalemate over legislation creating a Homeland Security Department, lengthening the odds that Congress will reach compromise before the November elections.
An attempt by Democratic leaders to bring debate to a close failed by 15 votes get the 60 necessary to prevail. Although talks were continuing, the likelihood of a deal was growing dimmer by the hour as lawmakers try to wrap up business by Oct. 11 for the fall campaigns.
"It's going to require a lot of work" to get done, said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a close ally of President Bush. "Our goal is to end up with a department that works, or else not have a department."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said "the clock is ticking" and raised the possibility that the bill will be shelved for good if the Senate turns to a use-of-force resolution regarding Iraq.
"Will it ever emerge? I don't know," said Lieberman, chief sponsor of a Democratic version of the legislation.
Senate Majoritiy Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., insisted that the Senate would continue to seek compromise, even raising the possibility of action after the Nov. 5 elections.
"We're going to finish this bill," he said. "We're going to do it some time this year."
Many Senate Democrats say Bush's unwavering insistence on broad powers over thousands of government employees is to blame for the impasse on a bill that passed the House in July and once seemed assured of quick passage.
"They say, 'It's either our way or no way,"' said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. "It's nonsense. There's no reason we can't have a compromise."
Republicans contend that Democratic political allegiance to labor unions is preventing the bill from passing with Bush's proposed powers intact. "There are a lot of vested interests out there who don't want to change," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.
The central issue remains Bush's demands for greater authority to hire, fire and deploy the new agency's estimated 170,000 employees and to exempt them from union bargaining agreements for reasons of national security. Bush and congressional Republicans say these powers are critical to quickly deal with future terrorist threats in an agency composed of 22 existing federal entities.
"Do we really want to bring in the bad old way of doing things in our government that has produced bad results?" Thompson said. "The answer is no."
Democrats who control the Senate say Bush's proposals would effectively wreck many civil service protections in the new agency and amount to an assault on union bargaining rights. Bush has threatened to veto a Democratic bill that doesn't include the powers.
Talks to explore a possible compromise continued Monday among White House staffers and aides to Sens. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., John Breaux, D-La., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb. Those three moderates have offered an alternative on the labor rights issue that appears to have a slim Senate majority but is being blocked by Republicans amid opposition by Bush.
The meeting, also attended by aides to Thompson and GOP Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, made little headway because, according to one participant, Bush continues to insist on getting 100 percent of his proposals on management flexibility and union waiver authority. The moderates' alternative sets up conditions for use of the union national security waiver that Bush says take away from his current powers.
"It is unclear whether further negotiations can lead to a mutually acceptable solution," said Chafee spokesman Jeff Neal.
Democrats are also frustrated at Bush's repeated criticisms of them on the homeland security issue, particularly in speeches at political fund-raisers. They say Bush only reluctantly embraced their idea for the department after months of resistance, then has issued veto threats while blaming Democrats for the stalemate.
"We naturally feel we have been treated unfairly," Lieberman said.