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Congress Goes Back to Work

November 12, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Congress may not be back in town for very long, but the one thing they all say they want is a homeland security bill. Negotiations apparently yielded significant movement today on Capitol Hill, improving the chances a bill will get to the floor this week.

With U.S. to bring us up to date on the state of the lame duck Congress are two senators: short-timer Republican Fred Thompson of Tennessee, the ranking member of the Governmental Affairs Committee; and Democrat John Breaux, the senator from Louisiana who’s been actively involved in negotiations. Thank you both for joining us.

Senator Breaux, tell us, what is the deal that we understand has now been agreed to on Capitol Hill and with the White House involving homeland security. You were part of the negotiations.

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: Well, Gwen, I wouldn’t term what we have a compromise. I would term it is an agreement on how to bring the legislation up and actually get something passed. I intend to vote for the homeland security bill, but it certainly doesn’t reflect what Senators Ben Nelson and Lincoln Chafee and myself offered and tried to negotiate before the elections. It falls far short of that.

This is not a compromise. Again it’s an agreement. It allows for the Federal Mediation Board to meet with the administration and the workers to discuss what their new job is going to entail and their pay and other things that are important to make this Homeland Security Department work. But that mediation does not have to be listened to by the White House. It’s an improvement over the original Republican bill, but I can’t really call it a compromise but rather an agreement to get the bill passed.

GWEN IFILL: In the end, does this agreement give the president or the administration the ultimate power in deciding whether to hire or fire or who will be covered among these hundreds of thousands of employees?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: With regard, Gwen, to the president making a decision, that would be his authority and his authority alone to make that decision. There would be no appeal or anything of that nature of his decision to take away the collective bargaining rights for as many as up to 50,000 employees. But we want those workers to really be enthusiastic about the work they’re going to be doing and I think their involvement in talking about the nature of their job and how it’s going to be carried out is very important.

The agreement would require them to talk with the workers. And if they can’t reach an agreement, to have a mediation board at least hear out their concerns and then the president could go forward with whatever he wants to do with regard to those workers. It’s not a good deal for the workers. I think it’s better than the original Republican proposal, however, and I think it will allow for the legislation to pass and hopefully to pass this week.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Thompson, when this first came up, this discussion of having a homeland security department combining these 22 separate agencies under one umbrella after September 11, the goal was to pass it by this past September 11, the one-year anniversary of the attacks. That didn’t happen. And we’re now in a lame duck session getting it passed. What was the hold up?

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, honest disagreement as to where we should go. I don’t think most serious thinking people thought that September 11 was achievable or even necessarily a good idea. That would have been rushing it much too fast, but we came down really I think to a couple of issues that we just couldn’t… well we just couldn’t come together on. One had to do with the president’s national security authority under certain circumstances. The president was insisting that he maintain exactly the same authority that prior presidents had had for many years. And he has gone to the… maintaining that authority with this agreement that’s worked out. So I think that we’ve come together on that issue now and so be it but that was a hang-up.

And the other one had to do with the flexibility that the president wanted for the administration to be able to put into effect some new rules and regulations. Workers’ rights are still going to be protected. All of the protections in Title V, all the prohibitions in Title V, concerning discrimination, whistle blower protection, merit hiring and that sort of thing are going to be there. But it takes too long to hire. It takes too long to get rid of people who need to be moving on. It takes too many levels of appeals and so forth. The president needed some flexibility. He will be given that flexibility now.

This is a monumental job. We need to move on from here and work together to get this thing done because it is an unprecedented, monumental job that we’ve got on our hands, pulling all these departments and all these people together, I think it’s going to take years to work it out. We don’t have years to get to where we need to be. We’re still a very vulnerable country, but this is a good first step and I’m delighted that we seem to be as close as we are coming out of it.

GWEN IFILL: Let me look back for one more second. In the weeks leading up to the election the Democrats were blaming the Republicans for not reaching an agreement on this, an agreement to even debate or vote on it in the Senate. And it was vice versa as well. Was this too good an election issue to let go — lo and behold a couple weeks after the election we now have an agreement?

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, I don’t really think it’s too beneficial to go back and analyze that. I think John and I probably would definitely have a few stones to cast different ways if we got into it. The problem with gloating over elections is that we have them every two years. And it’s foolish to go back into too many recriminations, so I prefer not to do that.

I’d prefer to… I don’t think anybody was holding out simply to have an election-year issue. I think certain people thought that it would play out differently than the way it played out. But I think there were people on both sides who had legitimate differences. We had an election, that issue, the homeland security issue was a big issue with regard to some of these elections and it played out.

Now we’re coming back together again. It’s always, I think, more difficult before elections when lines get drawn to work things out. And now it will be a couple of years before that happens again. What better time to finally put it together here in the waning days of this Congress?

GWEN IFILL: And, Senator Breaux, actually you have a sooner electoral test in your home state; that is, the Senate run-off involving your colleague, Senator Landrieu. Would this, had this not been resolved today, would this have been a problem for her?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: Gwen, Senator Landrieu plans to vote for homeland security. She’ll be coming back from Louisiana tomorrow to cast votes for homeland security. But I can give you the names of a number of people who are not going to be back from Congress in January as a result of this issue. I mean, it was a big political issue.

But any time you start talking about taking the collective bargaining rights away from American workers, I mean, I would argue that no one can say that the firemen and the policemen in New York, all of whom had collective bargaining rights, did not perform in the most admirable fashion on 9/11 as you could possibly have requested. They responded quickly. Some lost their lives. They did a heck of a good job. Every single one of them had collective bargaining rights.

So when you take away the rights that people have earned over the years you have to do it in a fashion that at least gives them the opportunity to be heard. And hopefully what we have offered is at least gets them to the table, even though the president, if he desires, can ignore what the Mediation Board suggests.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Breaux, Senator Daschle the Majority Leader for a few more days, weeks at least, has said that he doesn’t think this solves his problems even though he will still bring this bill to the floor. Senator Robert Byrd who had filibustered this and disagreed with it very much has not said how he will vote. Do you have the votes to get this passed now?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: Well, I mean, I think that those who are advocating it are going to have to round up the votes. My gut reaction is that yes, it will pass. Yes, a filibuster would not be successful although one may occur but I think that it would not be successful. I would hope for U.S. to finish this, this week in a fashion that the president would be able to sign it. But I do not think it is a compromise. It’s just simply an agreement to allow it to come to a vote and be adopted by the full Senate.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Thompson, are there other issues which there is time left in this lame duck session for Congress to take up? There are appropriations bills which have to be passed. There was some discussion today of delaying that until January.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: I really don’t know. I really don’t know.

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: Gwen, can I jump in and just maybe add –

GWEN IFILL: Sure, Senator Breaux.

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: — I think we worked on seaport security, the conference agreement on seaport security, which is going to really address homeland security, is completed. We’ve signed a conference report. And I would expect that we perhaps could bring that up as well this week. I think that would be a good bipartisan accomplishment.

GWEN IFILL: There’s been some discussion also of an energy bill.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Yeah. And there are several appropriations bills lying around also as we know. But I think it’s… the homeland security bill’s importance should not be underestimated. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. But, you know,… and the people who are going to be running this department shouldn’t feel like their rights are being diminished at all. The president is not for that. That’s been mischaracterized a lot.

What it means is that under this new system, if you’re not doing your job, it won’t take a year-and-a-half to do something about it and you won’t have five years to take in contention over whether or not the smoking arrangements outside are suitable — things of that nature.

We’ve got a dysfunctional government in many respects. We can’t operate the Homeland Security Department the way so many other departments have been operated with the waste and inefficiency that we’ve seen. So this is a monumental step in the right direction. And if we don’t do anything else this week except pass that, I think it will be a good week’s work.

GWEN IFILL: It was reported today, later this afternoon on the Associated Press wire, that when the president met with Republicans at the White House, an aide to the president described him as saying to them, “You have to learn to see this election for what it was,” which is his way of saying this is my agenda, you have to get it through now. Would you agree with that, Senator Thompson?

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, I think as far as homeland security is concerned that that is true. You know, we argue over the extent of the mandate and all. But I think that it is clear that the American people concluded that, you know, while something like prescription drugs is important, the world changed on September 11. And we’re concerned about the security of this country. We’re concerned about terrorist attacks. We know that we’ve got to take that first giant step toward making this a more secure nation. And our emphasis really ought to be there.

So while there are other issues out there that others have expressed interest in and we would all perhaps like to see happen, the president had a strong, consistent message that the number-one thing on our agenda had to be national security and doing what was necessary to effectuate that. And I think that’s what you’re seeing coming about now.

GWEN IFILL: And, Senator Breaux to you as well, is what we’re seeing here now more of the policy fallout from the election results?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: Well, I certainly think the elections affect the outcome of this legislation. But clearly workers are losing some of their rights. One of their rights is the right to collective bargaining, which they have fought for and argued for over many years. And it’s an accepted, established fact of life that workers have rights to collectively bargain. And if you take those rights away, they’re certainly losing something that they had before.

I think that the president ought to have had to show that at least a majority of the workers were going to be working in homeland security before he took that step. But that’s not going to happen. I think that the president is right in pushing for homeland security. I just wish that he would have found a way to have the workers more actively involved.

The last thing he wants is an unhappy work force. I think he wants a work force that is dedicated, intent on getting the job done, and by not letting them be involved in what they’re going to be doing, I think that’s a mistake that may adversely affect the quality of work. It’s going to be the same workers doing the job.

GWEN IFILL: That’s going to…

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: I would prefer not to fight old battles but I must point out that what John is complaining about here is authority that presidents have had ever since the days of Jimmy Carter. Democrat and Republican presidents both have had a right to abrogate collective bargaining agreements in the interest of national security on particular occasions. The president simply wanted to keep the same authority that these other presidents had had.

GWEN IFILL: We’re going to have to leave that argument unresolved for tonight. I’m sure you’ll work it out on the Senate floor. Senators Breaux and Thompson, thank you very much.