Homeland Security Prospects Growing Bleak

Senate moderates tried in vain Wednesday to resolve the labor rights dispute that has stalled legislation creating a Homeland Security Department.

Democrats John Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, joined by Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, could not win agreement on their latest attempt at compromise, which moved closer to the White House position. As a result, the largely partisan Senate logjam continues after almost five weeks.

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., repeated his pledge that the Senate would keep trying for a deal even as it moves on to other issues such as the Iraq use-of-force resolution.

"We're continuing to talk about ways to thread the needle," said spokeswoman Ranit Schmelzer.

President Bush has threatened to veto the homeland security legislation unless it permits him greater power to hire, fire and move around the proposed agency's 170,000 workers. Bush also objects to Democratic versions of the bill that he says would strip away his current authority to exempt workers from union bargaining agreements for reasons of national security.

Democrats, backed by their labor union allies, contend that Bush's proposals would undermine the civil service system and threaten collective bargaining rights.

Bush intends to maintain the pressure. Senior White House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush, in a talk Thursday with Hispanic leaders, would focus on his view that the bill cannot strip him of waiver power presidents have had since the Kennedy administration.

"I need the ability to manage the process," Bush said during a fund-raising appearance Wednesday night in Baltimore. "I don't need rules and regulations. I don't need micromanagement by the legislative branch. The house passed a good bill and now the Senate must do so."

The newest offer from Breaux, Nelson and Chafee would leave in place new conditions on the president's union waiver authority but would let the president determine when those conditions are met. In addition, the offer would expand the president's flexibility over personnel management compared with earlier versions of their bill.

Aides for the moderates said it became clear during the day that Democratic leaders were cool to the offer and it was uncertain if it would pass muster with the White House. The White House official said the president was willing to negotiate on all personnel issues as long as the waiver remained intact.

Many senators say that absent one side giving in, the work of the three moderates represents the best hope of a compromise.

"I'm not sure how we can make this happen," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.