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House Moves Closer to Homeland Security Blueprint

The vote comes despite continuing disagreements between Congress and President Bush over a labor rights issue within the new Cabinet-level department.

The Republican-led House continued to wade through 27 proposed amendments to the legislation, which would merge all or parts of 22 existing federal agencies into a new department with a $38 billion budget and 170,000 employees dedicated to better protecting the nation against terrorist attacks.

The struggle over labor rights emerged after President Bush called for the new department to be exempt from traditional civil service and budget rules that could prevent the agency from reacting quickly to new terrorism threats — creating unprecedented freedom to hire, fire, transfer and reward employees.

On Friday, the House attempted to address the administration’s demands by voting 229-201 to approve a GOP-backed labor amendment that would allow workers transferred to the new department to keep union membership, unless the president decides that such representation could impact national security.

President Bush warned early Friday that he would veto any homeland defense bill that did not include what he termed management flexibility.

“I’m not going to accept legislation that limits or weakens the president’s well-established authorities — authorities to exempt parts of government from federal labor management relations statutes — when it serves our national interest,” Bush said during a White House gathering of lawmakers, Cabinet members and other officials.

On Thursday, the Democratic-led Senate Governmental Affairs Committee dismissed warnings from the White House of a possible veto and approved its own bill that would deny the president new managerial discretion Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), chief sponsor of the Senate bill, urged all sides to consider the implications of letting worker issues snare the Homeland Security bill in a political tangle.

In a Friday meeting with reporters, Lieberman expressed surprise at President Bush’s demands, but urged his fellow lawmakers to “tone down the rhetoric and stop sounding false alarms.”

The House is expected to vote on its bill late Friday and the Senate will take up the legislation next week. Differences between the two would then have to be resolved for a final piece of legislation to be sent to President Bush to sign into law near the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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