House passes Homeland Security amendment assuring presidential authority to waive labor rights

Friday, July 26th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House voted Friday to give President Bush authority to waive labor protections under dire circumstances for workers in the new Homeland Security Department, a power the president says is crucial in swiftly confronting terrorist threats.

The 229-201 vote on an amendment by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., came a few hours after Bush sternly warned Congress not to pass legislation creating the agency that would limit his budgetary and personnel powers. He has threatened to veto a Senate version over those issues.

``A time of war is the wrong time to weaken the president's ability to protect the American people,'' Bush told a White House audience that included governors, mayors, firefighters, police and lawmakers.

The amendment adopted by the House states that union collective bargaining rights must apply to workers already covered by union agreements as they move into the new agency. But it gives the president the right to waive those rights, in writing, during times of national emergency. That is a slightly higher threshold for waiver than the president has under current law for other departments.

``We believe this approach represents a sensible and reasonable compromise,'' Shays said.

Democrats, however, said the amendment would essentially provide no protection for those union members who are transferred into the new department. ``This amendment provides the president with a trap door to deny union membership,'' said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

The House was wading through a list of other amendments as it headed toward final passage later Friday of legislation that would merge 22 federal entities and 170,000 employees under a single homeland security agency. The Senate is expected to debate its bill next week.

Bush indicated he would veto the legislation, if passed in the Senate version, because it doesn't exempt the proposed agency from civil-service and budget rules. Democrats and organized labor have strongly opposed Bush's position, saying it would violate workers' rights.

``I reject that as strongly as I can state it,'' Bush said of the suggestion that his position was anti-labor.

``We can't be micromanaged,'' he asserted.

Few on Capitol Hill believe Bush will not get his new department, one way or another, before Congress adjourns this fall.

``There are differences, but I would say they are at the margins,'' Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., had said Thursday. ``This bill gives the president about 90 percent of what he asked for.''

And Bush himself told his audience: ``This administration is working with Congress to forge a bipartisan bill. I believe we're making good progress. And, being a modest guy, I'm willing to recognize a good idea even if it comes from Congress.''

Bush claims the personnel and management flexibility he seeks is vital to move quickly as new terrorist threats emerge. Preventing terrorist attacks should not be shackled by burdensome rules, he says.

As part of its intensifying campaign to pre-empt a Senate vote on the Democratic-sponsored measure, the White House dispatched a group of sympathetic governors and state officials to press the president's case at a news conference outside the White House.

Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, a Republican, said he fully supported Bush's position. ``I encourage Congress to give the president as much flexibility as possible.''

Maine Gov. Angus King, a political independent, denied that Bush was trying to undercut labor protections or whistleblower rights. ``He's looking for the flexibility to move people around in a wartime footing,'' King said. ``This is really a question of the highest level of national security.''

The House and Senate bills generally mirror Bush's proposals to transfer such agencies as the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Border Patrol, Customs Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the just-created Transportation Security Administration into the new department.

On Thursday, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee approved its bill by a 12-5 vote, leaving aside Bush's demand for personnel flexibility.