Moderate Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) crossed the aisle to join Senate Democrats in supporting a compromise amendment that did not offer the broad personnel powers President Bush has said will be vital in creating an effective organization to protect the country from future terrorist attacks.
President Bush has warned that he will veto a bill that did not give him the power to hire, fire or exempt employees from union bargaining rights either for reasons of national security or in order to respond quickly to potential terrorist threats. The new Homeland Security Department would combine hundreds of thousands of federal employees from existing agencies of which an estimated 43,000 would be union workers.
White House spokesman Ari Fleisher was quick to condemn the Senate’s decision and said the president will be unable to make quick national security decisions without ” the flexibility that the work force needs to do their job well.”
“Make no mistake: if what the Senate [passes] in that narrow vote were to come to the president’s desk it will be vetoed,” Fleisher said. “The president will be effectively prevented from making decisions based on national security no matter how urgent a crisis we find ourselves in.”
Sen. Chafee and moderate Democrat Senators John Breaux (D-La.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) sponsored the amendment, which attempts to appease both the president’s request and the demands of labor unions to protect worker rights. Among other provisions, the agreement broadens the president’s power to hire, fire, promote and compensate the new department’s workers but still gives federal employee unions the right to object and seek the assistance of federal arbitrators if necessary.
“It would be very ironic indeed if the agency that is created to protect the freedoms of Americans engages in taking away some of those freedoms itself without adequate protection for those rights,” Sen. Breaux said of the labor issue.
Sen. Chafee did not speak in detail about his decision to cross party lines but called the compromise “an important step forward.” Much of the language of the new amendment echoes that of an earlier proposal by U.S. Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) that was rejected in the House.
Asked if they had enough votes to get the amendment included in the final bill, Sen. Breaux said, ” I think we have enough to have a majority.”
A Senate vote on the Homeland Security Act could happen as early as Wednesday afternoon at which point the bill would go to a conference with House members to draft a final compromise.
As lawmakers continued to hammer out the shape of a new Homeland Security Department, the Senate voted 90 to 8 on Tuesday to create an independent commission to investigate intelligence failures and other government mistakes relating to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Several family members of Sept. 11 victims have supported the creation of such a commission.
“If we don’t come to terms with the whole truth by looking back at what happened, we can never move forward with the knowledge and confidence we need to set things straight,” said Sen. Joseph Liberman (D-Conn.), a chief sponsor of the bill.