Background: Back to Work
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KWAME HOLMAN: Under the rain-soaked dome of the United States Capitol today, the work of two Congresses–the soon-to-adjourn 107th and the yet-to-convene 108th–managed to proceed independently of each other. The newly-elected House members of the 108th Congress were welcomed to the Capitol today, their first day of orientation.
There are some familiar faces among the freshmen class. Katherine Harris was the Florida secretary of state who declared George W. Bush the winner of the state’s contested electoral votes in the 2000 Presidential race. She’ll now represent the Congressional district in and around Sarasota. Rahm Emanuel was a senior advisor in the Clinton White House. He’ll now represent a district in Chicago. House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney and Steny Hoyer the ranking Democrat will spend the next few days explaining the nuts and bolts, the do’s and don’ts, the practical guidelines of serving in the new Congress.
But there’s still work to do in the 107th Congress. And so members, including those who’ll be replaced in the new Congress, returned today for the start of a rare lame-duck session. For instance, Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson is retiring from the Senate and has only a few days remaining in his Congressional career. Still, Thompson and Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman, the top Republican and Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee, were together again this morning to open another hearing on Enron.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Senator Thompson, it’s good to be back with you. You know, I don’t know how to say it, but anyway, I’m going to miss you.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate that. I imagine that we’re both a bit nostalgic this morning, but for different reasons.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: ( Laughs ) Yes.
KWAME HOLMAN: On the other hand, Dean Barkley’s entire career in the Senate might only amount to a few days. He was sworn into office this afternoon to serve the remaining days in the term of the late Paul Wellstone who was killed in a plane crash ten days before the election.
SWEARING IN: So help you God.
BARKLEY: I do.
KWAME HOLMAN: Barkley, will be replaced in January by former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Republican, who won the Minnesota Senate race last week. Barkley is an independent, and his decision yesterday not to side with either party means Democrat Tom Daschle will remain majority leader of the narrowly-divided Senate during the lame duck session. The impact of Barkley’s decision will depend on what Congress tries to accomplish over the next several days. Congress has yet to complete action on 11 of the 13 appropriations bills needed to keep the government operating and temporary funding runs out next week. But President Bush continues to insist the single most important piece of business before the Congress is legislation creating a new department of homeland security.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m certain members of the Senate and the house have all kinds of agendas they’d like to discuss. The single most important one is to get this bill done.
KWAME HOLMAN: The new Department of Homeland Security would combine the jurisdictions of 22 federal agencies and a workforce of 177,000. But Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have been at an impasse for months over the President’s request for authority to supercede workers’ civil service and union rights, giving him flexibility to hire, fire, or transfer workers within the new department.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: It is an ultra-conservative agenda that is anti-worker and obviously anti-union. More importantly, it has nothing to do with homeland security.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM: I have never suggested the Democrats don’t want a homeland security bill. They love homeland security. Their problem is, they love public employee labor unions more than they love homeland security.
KWAME HOLMAN: Each side of the debate has prevented the other from succeeding. Today, the President joined in.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The rights of federal workers should be and will fully be protected in the Department of Homeland Security. Every employee will be treated fairly and protected from discrimination. The men and women who work in that department will need and want leadership that can act quickly and decisively, without getting bogged down in endless disputes. And when the department is created, we’ve got to do it right. It is our chance to do it right, and I will not give up national security authority at the price for creating a department we badly need to secure America.
KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Republican leaders from the House and Senate emerged from a White House meeting with the President. They said the President had agreed on new compromise language that could signal a breakthrough in the homeland security stalemate. Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum and Oklahoma’s J.C. Watts spoke for the group.
WATTS: I think the legislation is probably 75 to 80 percent of what we passed out of the house.
SANTORUM: It seems to be a consensus now, one that will get a broad bipartisan support in the Senate. So the question is now how long will some on the other side force the Senate to stay around to go through the procedural hoops, and they could be many.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Republican-run House could approve the homeland security bill with the new language as early as tomorrow; Democrats have promised to begin considering the issue on the Senate floor tomorrow as well.