Senate tackles homeland security
Democrats, Bush disagree over management
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate began debate Tuesday on establishing a Cabinet-level homeland security office as the White House argued for more authority over managing an estimated 170,000 workers in the proposed department.
President Bush used appearances over the Labor Day weekend to urge the Senate to pass a measure consolidating numerous national security-related government agencies -- now spread over numerous departments -- under one roof.
The Republican-led House of Representatives passed a White House-backed version of the bill in July, but the top sticking point for critics in the Democratic-run Senate is Bush's insistence on allowing top officials more power over personnel issues. Bush has threatened to veto any bill that does not grant the White House that authority.
"The Senate bill, currently as passed by the committee, provides no management flexibility for the president," White House Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. "The president should have the same authority in the new department that he has in all other departments -- that would include the authority to restrict collective bargaining rights in cases of national security. All other departments have that authority."
Critics like Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Virginia, say that would undercut protections for federal employees and weaken the civil service system.
"President Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security is an enormous grant of power to the executive branch," Byrd said, adding: "We must not cede this power -- power the administration wants but not necessarily needs."
Bush's proposal calls for all or parts of 22 government agencies -- including the Coast Guard, Customs Service and Border Patrol -- to be pulled together under the umbrella of a single department committed to protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. The proposed department would have approximately 170,000 employees and a budget of $37.4 billion.
Despite the dispute over federal employees, the Senate bill largely mirrors Bush's plan. Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman said Tuesday the Senate is "near-unified" on the bulk of the bill, and "only a big pessimist would see the difficulty in the opportunity this department would create to secure our people and our homeland."
But Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said the president should have more authority to hire and fire workers in the agency.
"There can not be a bill that does not give the president reorganization flexibility, the ability to override collective bargaining agreements in the name of national security and personnel flexibility," Gramm said. "I think denying these three powers is a denial of common sense and a denial of the crisis as we know it exists."
Bush planned to meet with Republican senators Tuesday afternoon at the White House on the issue.
"I need the flexibility to put the right people at the right place at the right time to protect the American people -- and the Senate better get it right," he told union workers Monday in Pennsylvania.
White House Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge was critical of the Senate approach.
"One of the challenges we have right now is the Senate version just wants to piecemeal and bolt pieces of this organization together. You really need to integrate, you really need to consolidate, you really need to reorganize," Ridge told CNN. "The president needs the flexibility to move people and resources around, and I'm hopeful that once the debate has concluded ... we can get a bill to the president that he can sign."