White House Ratchets Up Homeland Security

As the November midterm election approaches, President Bush is blaming the Democratic-run Senate for failing to pass legislation that would help the economy and increase national security.

Among the president's arguments are claims that the Democrats have held back the economy by refusing to move energy legislation, including drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and preventing passage of a terrorism insurance bill, which is stalled over liability rules.

On Tuesday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said that Democrats are also responsible for loading down the homeland security bill by creating too many demands for union representation among the agency's expected 170,000 workers.

Democrats say they are merely protecting workers with the same rights already afforded to them.

Ridge, who was at a White House strategy session, said that the Senate Democrats who want to forbid Bush the opportunity of hiring, moving and firing employees, would be denying the president the flexibility every president has had since John F. Kennedy was president.

"We think it's a rather perverse set of circumstances," Ridge said. "Whereas the president would have national security authority as it relates to every other department in his Cabinet, at this time we are at war, (but) it would not apply to the new Department of Homeland Security."

Ridge made the case to reporters after the Bush Cabinet sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., asking them to grant the president existing authorities in the new department.

"At this challenging time, we believe that the president's existing, government-wide authority to exclude unions from certain agencies in the interests of our national security should be preserved for this new department," the letter, signed by all 14 Cabinet secretaries, stated.

"We do not believe that it is logical, especially in this time of war, for the president to have this critical national security authority for each of the 14 existing Cabinet departments, but to have that authority effectively stripped from him when it comes to the department created for the very purpose of protecting the homeland," the letter said.

Daschle said that Democrats want measures in the legislation to prevent union workers from losing protections currently guaranteed in their existing jobs after they head into the new Department of Homeland Security.

Democrats have said that they would permit the president to waive collective bargaining if a worker is asked to substantially change his or her job duties and most workers in that unit are working on a terrorism-related investigation or intelligence work related to national security.

"We have the votes. And we would like to have the amendment voted upon that represents a real compromise, a compromise that we think reflects the balance that we ought to have between giving the president the flexibility he wants and giving federal employees the protections they deserve. And we'll continue to try to do that," Daschle said Tuesday.

Daschle also accused Republicans of holding up the vote because they have "chosen to politicize this issue rather than resolve it. They want to make homeland security an issue in the election. They don't want to get this done. They want to hold it out there for the American people to be confused about."

Ridge urged Congress to take "as long as it takes" to pass the legislation, even if that means staying in session through the election.