TOPICS > Politics

Securing the Homeland

November 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The House of Representatives stayed in session until just after 3:00 this morning as members finally wrapped up work on a trio of terrorism-related bills that developed in response to the September 11 attacks. The most far-reaching and controversial of the three was legislation creating a new Department of Homeland Security. Congress has been under daily pressure from the President to pass the bill before it adjourns for the year, and on Wednesday night, the House responded. Florida Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart:

REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALLART: The security of the American people is the primary function of the government of the United States. The creation of this new department to coordinate all security activities on behalf of the American people is of the utmost importance. It has been a high priority for President Bush.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican support for the bill nearly was unanimous, and it attracted a large number of Democrats, including California’s Jane Harman.

REP. JANE HARMAN: The legislation is not perfect, as we have heard, but neither was the national security act, which created the department of defense in 1947. Our national security organization has evolved and improved over time, and so will our homeland security organization.

KWAME HOLMAN: The new department is designed to prevent, minimize, and respond to terrorist threats against the United States. It consolidates 22 agencies and their 179,000 federal workers. The legislation includes new language that gives the President flexibility to overrule workers’ civil service and union protections within the department. Workers may challenge personnel decisions in mediation, but the final decision rests with the President and the new department. The workplace rules in the bill had been rewritten just days before, irritating some Democrats. Albert Wynn represents thousands of federal workers in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.

REP. ALBERT WYNN: Why would we remove the collective bargaining rights from these people? This is supposed to be a bill about fighting terrorism. Unfortunately, this bill puts the administration at war with federal employees, and that is not right.

KWAME HOLMAN: The homeland security bill passed by a vote of 299 to 121. Last night, the House by voice vote passed a long-stalled terrorism insurance bill requiring insurance companies to provide terrorism coverage. The government would pay 90 percent of claims once they total more than $10 billion. It also would pay most of the cost for claims below $10 billion, but would recoup the money through a tax on insurance premiums paid by businesses. And the House also approved legislation requiring increased security at the nation’s 361 seaports and broadening the authority of the Coast Guard. The Senate also is moving on the three terrorism-related bills but not with the same efficiency as the House. It too passed the port security bill yesterday, and is expected to act on terrorism insurance early next week. But the homeland security bill has become entangled over what Senate Democrats claim are several special interest provisions added to the bill by house Republicans. Majority Leader Tom Daschle briefed the media on what Democrats considered the most egregious provision.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: There is a provision, as you may know, that provides liability protection for pharmaceutical companies that actually make mercury-based vaccine preservatives that actually have caused autism in children. It wipes out all of the litigation. I can’t understand why we would put a provision in there relating to that kind of liability protection.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the Senate floor, California’s Barbara Boxer charged the provision was politically motivated.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: A big campaign contributor of the Republican Party was rewarded phenomenally. A provision was added to the homeland security bill that protects that big contributor, but has nothing to do with homeland security or protecting the American people.

KWAME HOLMAN: New York’s Charles Schumer said the company was Eli Lilly.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: That kind of provision would never pass standing on its own, and it was slipped in in the dark of night by the other body. We should not countenance it here.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Tennessee Republican Bill Frist argued there is a homeland security reason for the provision. He claimed Eli Lilly is one of the few pharmaceutical companies able to develop a vaccine against smallpox and the Ebola virus.

SEN. BILL FRIST: It is the pharmaceutical companies, the manufacturing companies, they are the only ones who can make the smallpox vaccine, the frontline for that weapon of mass destruction. The Ebola virus, we can promote the research, but only can a manufacturing firm, a pharmaceutical firm make the Ebola vaccine. Why would they stand out totally exposed for making a medicine that is lifesaving yes, but with one lawsuit, can wipe out their whole development process, their whole manufacturing process.

KWAME HOLMAN: Many Democrats, Tom Daschle among them, said they would vote in favor of the homeland security bill even if they failed to remove the added provisions. Robert Byrd himself, the Senate’s most vocal opponent of the homeland security bill, admitted it was too late to stop the momentum behind its passage.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: You can be sorry for what you’ve done. You can crab about it and be cranky and wish you hadn’t done it, but it’s too late now.

KWAME HOLMAN: The homeland security bill is expected to come up for a final vote in the Senate on Monday.