Lawmakers say Homeland Security, economic issues to dominate fall congressional agenda

Sunday, August 4th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The proposed Homeland Security Department and economic issues, including increasing worries about retirement security, will dominate a fall congressional agenda overshadowed by midterm elections, Senate leaders said Sunday.

The Senate has agreed to make homeland security its first order of business when lawmakers return after Labor Day from their August recess. After enacting a law to crack down on corporate wrongdoing, Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said improving protections for worker pensions and 401(k) plans should be another top priority.

Daschle said on ABC's ``This Week'' that Democrats ``believe that what we've got to look at now is the current state of the economy ... to look at the future and how we might address pension security in particular.''

The unsettled economy, driven in part by repeated revelations of corporate malfeasance, could affect November congressional elections that will determine control of the closely divided House and Senate.

In his Saturday radio address, Bush said lawmakers could still accomplish much if politics is kept to a minimum.

``I know in the fall of an election year, the tendency is to focus more on scoring political points than on making progress. I hope the Congress will reject this approach,'' the president said

Senate Democrats, however, have yet to agree on such pension issues as whether to limit how much company stock workers can have in 401(k) plans and require that employees serve on company boards that oversee retirement plans. The Republican-led House passed its version of pension security four months ago.

The Senate's top Republican, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, told ABC that Democrats have been unable to develop a response to the economic problems or concerns about pension security. GOP priorities have included last year's $1.35 trillion tax cut and passage of a major trade bill that Lott said would have long-lasting helpful effects on the economy.

``Now, the Democrats have just been saying the sky is falling, the sky is falling. Oh, woe is me. Well, what is their plan?'' Lott said.

On homeland security, Lott said Bush was right to insist upon management flexibility that would enable the administration to quickly hire, fire and relocate workers to deal with emerging terrorist threats. Democrats say the plan amounts to an assault on union rights and civil service protections in a new Cabinet agency with 170,000 workers.

``The American people, I believe, expect us to focus on how can we protect their life and liberty, their security here at home,'' Lott said.

The chief sponsor of the Democratic homeland security bill, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, said that Bush had picked the fight by proposing such broad new powers for the agency's secretary. Lieberman said these personnel issues were not central to the department's mission of safeguarding Americans at home.

``That was his initiative, and it's totally unnecessary. It will delay what we all want to do,'' Lieberman said on ``Fox News Sunday.''

Other issues confronting lawmakers when they return are the 13 annual spending bills to keep government operating and attempts to reach compromise in such areas as a national energy policy, terrorism insurance, bankruptcy reforms, a patients' bill of rights and reauthorization of welfare laws.