WASHINGTON – Delivering a strong triumph to President Bush, the Senate voted decisively Tuesday to create a Homeland Security Department, setting the stage for the biggest government reshuffling in a half-century as a way to thwart and respond to terrorist attacks.
"It is landmark in its scope and it ends a session which has seen two years worth of legislative work which has been very productive for the American people," Bush told Senate Republican leaders from Air Force One as he flew to NATO meetings in Europe.
The final vote was 90-9, belying bitter clashes that pitted Congress against the White House and the two parties against each other and prolonged work on the legislation for nearly a year. Eight Democrats and independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont voted "no" as Congress neared adjournment for the year.
"The United States Senate voted overwhelmingly to better protect America and voted overwhelmingly to help people find work," Bush said at a news conference Wednesday in Prague, Czech Republic, referring to bills creating the new department and bolstering businesses with terrorism insurance.
"I want to thank the members of the United States Senate for working with this administration to do the right thing for the American people," the president added. "Setting up this new department will take time, but I know we will meet the challenge together."
The new Cabinet-level department will merge 22 agencies with combined budgets of about $40 billion and employ 170,000 workers — the most grandiose federal reorganization since the Defense Department's birth in 1947.
Even so, it will take months for the new agency to get fully off the ground. And a budget stalemate continues to block most of the extra money for domestic security enhancements both sides want for the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
The House overwhelmingly approved the bill on Nov. 13, so the Senate vote was the crucial, final test. Because of technical changes the Senate made, however, the House is expected to provide final congressional approval Friday with an anticlimactic voice vote.
Senators cleared the way for the final vote by rejecting, 52-47, a Democratic bid to block provisions that will aid vaccine producers and other industries. That vote came after Republican leaders made last-minute concessions that ensured support from four moderate senators.
"This bill still needs work," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., voicing the misgivings of Democrats who opposed the pro-industry provisions. But he said he supported the legislation because of "the tremendous challenge facing the country" to combat terror.
"I have no doubt that next year we will be back addressing the shortcomings that are in this bill," said Daschle.
The Senate plans to meet for a last time this year on Wednesday but will not consider legislation.
In their final cluster of roll calls Tuesday night, senators sent Bush a bill making the government the insurer of last resort for terrorist attacks, with a maximum annual tab to taxpayers of $90 billion. The vote was 86-11.
Senators voted 55-44 to approve U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Shedd to be an appeals court judge, confirming a Bush nominee who sparked a fight with Democrats over civil rights. By 92-2, they also sent Bush a measure keeping federal agencies open through Jan. 11, needed due to unfinished spending bills.
The work came in the final hours of the 107th Congress, which has seen the world change around it during a tumultuous two-year run.
Bush won a $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut but saw a vibrant economy stall and federal surpluses become deficits. Terrorists killed nearly 3,000 in last year's attacks on Washington and New York. And a 50-50 Senate tilted Democratic after Jeffords left the GOP, only to see Republicans grab it back last Election Day.
Completion of the homeland security bill ends a topsy-turvy odyssey for legislation that started inching through Congress nearly a year ago against Bush's will, only to see him offer his own version after momentum became unstoppable.
Democrats resisted Bush's bill because it restricted labor rights of the new agency's workers. But many reversed course after their Election Day loss of Senate control was attributed partly to the homeland security fight.
"This is a substantial accomplishment, an historic day in the age of insecurity we've entered," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., one of many authors of homeland security legislation.
The road to passing the homeland security bill was cleared only as the clock ticked down during the Democratic amendment vote.
Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., phoned House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in Turkey and won his pledge that next year Congress would reconsider the three provisions the moderates opposed, senators said. The agreement secured support by Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both R-Maine, Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
One provision would legally shield drug companies already sued over ingredients used in vaccines, which Democrats said included claims that mercury-based preservatives have caused autism in children.
Also reworked will be a section helping Texas A&M University win homeland security research funds and one permitting federal business with U.S. companies that have moved broad to sidestep taxes.
Senators said consent also came from No. 3 House GOP leader Tom DeLay, whose district is near Texas A&M. DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said DeLay had agreed only to discuss the issues next year, but said he expected agreement.
Remaining in the bill are legal protections for airport security firms and companies that make airport screening devices, exempting some homeland security meetings from open-meeting laws and making it harder to issue new federal transportation security requirements.
"That is not good government," Daschle said of the provisions. "That is shabby government."
Lott said passage of the Democratic amendment would have meant prolonged House-Senate talks on the bill's final details.
"The terrorists are not going to wait for a process that goes on days, weeks or months," he said. "I don't want to be singing 'Jingle Bells' here Dec. 21" still working on the bill.
Democratic defectors on their party's amendment were Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who faces a tight runoff election Dec. 7.
Independent Sen. Dean Barkley of Minnesota voted "no" while Jeffords voted "yes."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sided with Democrats.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.