WASHINGTON – A new Homeland Security Department moved closer to becoming reality after the House easily passed a bill calling for the largest overhaul of the government in more than 50 years.
The Senate appeared ready to follow suit as Democrats, despite their reservations over labor issues, no longer could stop a government reorganization that President Bush has cited as a priority response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The House voted 299-121 Wednesday night to establish the 170,000-member department. Its creation would be the first major reorganization of government in 25 years, since the Energy Department was founded in 1977, and largest since the Defense Department was born in 1947.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday that Bush was pleased with the vote. "This is about protecting the American people and providing the president with the tools he needs to better protect the American people," he said.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the bill "will enable our nation to have the tools it needs to monitor, track and prevent future terrorist acts from happening again."
"We've been given a great opportunity to protect our countrymen and the world," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "We need to wake up and do it now."
The Senate, which began debating the measure Wednesday, was expected to act in the next few days, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said he expected the bill to pass.
"I'm inclined to support final passage," said Daschle, D-S.D., adding that Democrats wanted to see the bill move forward despite lingering concerns over labor provisions.
The Senate showed its inclination toward passing the bill earlier in the day by voting 50-47 to kill a Democratic version that gave additional protections to workers. Debate on the bill was to continue in the Senate on Thursday.
The Cabinet-level agency would combine 22 different agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Secret Service.
The congressional action came after lawmakers ended a weekslong stalemate, with Democrats conceding that Republicans, emboldened with new power gained in last week's elections, had the support to pass a bill anyway.
An earlier version of the bill passed the Republican-led House 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.
Weekend negotiating among House Republicans, the White House and three moderate senators — Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., John Breaux, D-La., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb. — gave the bill the votes it needed.
As a concession to Democrats, the department would be required to first consult on any workplace changes with employees' unions. In the end, though, the president would have wide-ranging authority to waive union rights for the sake of national security.
Some Democrats and union leaders remained unhappy.
"This is just another example of the Bush administration's union-busting policies," Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., said.
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, called the bill a "shameful and unprecedented assault on workers."
But Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., said the labor provisions were a good compromise. "This is called the Department of Homeland Security. Let's remember their mission — protecting the public," Weldon said.
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 private airport 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 bill would allow commercial airline pilots to carry guns in cockpits, and give airports a one-year delay in the Dec. 31 deadline to install explosive detection systems to screen all checked baggage. It would also let the new agency sign contracts with U.S. companies that have relocated abroad.
Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., sought to add language dropped from the bill that would have established an independent commission to investigate why U.S. authorities failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Bush administration and House Republicans said they supported the commission, but did not want the proposal — still being crafted — to delay the homeland security measure.
Earlier Wednesday, the House 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 is still needed.
Lawmakers would then wait until the new Congress convenes in January to tackle the spending issues again.