WASHINGTON – The House voted emphatically Wednesday to create a Homeland Security Department, propelling President Bush nearer his goal of answering last year's terrorist attacks with the biggest restructuring of government in half a century.
The 299-121 roll call — and a pair of favorable procedural votes in the Democratic-run Senate — signaled that lawmakers were ready to award a legislative triumph to a president whose hand was strengthened by Republican victories in last week's congressional elections. Bush began supporting the idea of a huge new department combining 22 agencies this summer after initially coming to office seeking to diminish the role of government in Americans' lives.
"Times have changed and it's imperative to the security of our country and the security of our families that our government change as well," said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Opposition came mostly from Democrats arguing that the bill still lacked adequate job protections for the new agency's 170,000 workers. Voting for the measure were 212 Republicans and 87 Democrats, while six Republicans, 114 Democrats and one independent voted "no."
The bill is "just another example of the Bush administration's union-busting policies," said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla.
Among the agencies the bill would combine are the Coast Guard, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., predicted the bill would pass by next week. Underlining the shift in momentum, he said he might vote for it despite his own objections to its labor provisions.
"It's a lame duck. The president has said he wanted the bill," Daschle said in explaining why a bill snagged in the Senate for two months was sailing toward enactment.
The Senate began debating the bill and voted 89-8 to end procedural delays and 50-47 to kill a more pro-labor Democratic alternative. Though opponents will have other chances to slow the measure, the votes reflected that senators realized it was now politically impossible to kill.
The idea of combining the government's far-flung domestic security functions into a single agency was originally proposed last year by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and other members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee as a response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Bush administration initially opposed the plan, offering its own proposal last summer when congressional support for the concept became overwhelming.
With hopes of wrapping up its business for the year, the House also voted 270-143 to keep federal agencies open through Jan. 11, a bill required by this year's budget deadlock between Congress and the White House. Senate passage was needed.
Only two of the 13 spending bills for the federal fiscal year that started Oct. 1 have become law. The remainder will have to be revisited by the new Congress next year.
The temporary bill would keep most spending at last year's levels. That meant domestic security and other programs for which Bush proposed big increases would not receive additional funding unless Congress votes for it later.
Democrats complained that Republicans stuffed provisions into the homeland security bill limiting liability for producers of the smallpox vaccine and makers of high technology airport screening equipment, as well as for many airport private security companies.
It also has vaguely worded language that would make Texas A&M University eligible for federal homeland security research — a provision inserted by Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, whose district is nearby.
The measure would allow airline pilots to carry guns in cockpits, give airports a one-year delay in the Dec. 31 deadline for installing equipment to inspect all checked bags for explosives, and let the new agency sign contracts with U.S. companies that have relocated abroad to dodge taxes.
An earlier version passed the House easily in July. But the Senate deadlocked over Bush's insistence on national security grounds that he needed the power to hire, fire and deploy workers without the civil service protections most federal workers have.
The final bill requires a month of talks with unions and another month of federal mediation, but would let the agency do what it wants anyway. It would also let the president strip department workers of collective bargaining rights, though that decision would be revisited every four years.
Sensing that last week's election had turned the tide, three pivotal moderate senators accepted the new language and embraced the bill, ensuring it had the votes needed to break the stalemate. They are Sens. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I.; John Breaux, D-La.; and Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
Republicans say the voters punished Democrats on Election Day for taking the side of public employee unions and blocking the earlier version of the bill.
Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who did not serve in the military, emphasized the issue in his successful campaign to oust Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam War triple amputee. And some Democrats worried that if the bill was not approved, it could hurt Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in the runoff election she faces next month.
Daschle said he believed Bush and the GOP played politics with the bill.
"In my view, he didn't want the bill before the election, with the expectation and hope they would use it for political purposes," Daschle said. "They have."