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Geared to Focus on Terrorism; Vote Ends Months of Debate
Fair Use Statement

<-- Return To TerrorSpeak

Source: NY Times

November 19, 2002

Geared to Focus on Terrorism; Vote Ends Months of Debate

By DAVID FIRESTONE

WASHINGTON, Nov. 19 - The Senate voted today to reorganize elements of a scattered federal government around the intensely focused goal of combating terrorism, approving of the creation of a huge Department of Homeland Security that represents Washington's biggest transformation in 50 years.

Ending months of rancorous debate on the new department, the Senate approved the bill on a 90-to-9 vote that disguised the deep misgivings many Democrats still harbor about President Bush's design for the agency. Only after urgent phone calls from the president and last-minute promises by Republican leaders to eliminate several special-interest business provisions did wavering moderates from both parties agree to the final vote.

The House approved the same bill last week, and after a few technical differences between the bills are resolved, the bill is expected to be on the president's desk for signature before month's end. Even so, it will likely be years before the new department has fully assumed all of its functions.

``We're making great progress in the war on terror,'' Mr. Bush told Senate Republicans in a conference call this afternoon. ``Part of that progress will be the ability for us to protect the American people at home. This is a very important piece of legislation. It is landmark in its scope.''

Not since the Truman Administration upended the nation's defense apparatus to fight the Cold War in 1949 has the government been reshaped so dramatically around a single purpose. Once the department goes into existence 60 days from Mr. Bush's signature, it will slowly begin to absorb 22 of Washington's signature functions, from immigration to border protection, from emergency management to intelligence analysis to the protection of the president himself.

A department workforce that could eventually surpass 170,000 employees around the world will answer to a new cabinet secretary - almost certainly Tom Ridge, now the director of the White House Homeland Security office - and they will be required to discard their old departmental loyalties and begin a new cooperation to prevent terrorist attacks and respond to those that occur.

Many of those workers will also find themselves without their customary civil service job protections, an issue that held up approval of the department for months. The entire process, in fact, was far more bitterly partisan than anyone expected in June when Mr. Bush adopted a Democratic idea for the department and began promoting it as his own, after adding changes that will give him more management flexibility than in most other departments.

The department, and Mr. Bush's plan to eliminate job security, became one of the most divisive issues in the midterm elections, and the decision to fight Mr. Bush's plans helped cost two Democratic senators their jobs and their party control over the Senate.

Even in the last week, Democrats became incensed at a last-minute move by House Republican leaders to include a series of pro-business provisions in the bill. Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, called the move ``shabby government'' and said the Republicans should be ashamed of such late-night actions.

But the Democratic effort to strip the bill of the provisions fell short today on a 47-to-52 vote that came after extensive arm-twisting by President Bush of wavering senators. Three Democrats and three moderate Republicans said they were persuaded to vote the president's way after the Republicans promised to alter three of the most bitterly contested provisions early next year.

The three provisions would establish a university research center for Homeland Security, most probably at Texas A&M University; allow many businesses who have left the country to evade federal taxes to contract with the new department; and would provide legal protection to companies that make ingredients for vaccines. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and several other senators said they had received an ``ironclad promise'' from Senate and House Republican leaders and the White House to essentially rescind the provisions in the first spending bill to pass through Congress next year.

Having lost the first battle with the president over job security, and the second battle with the House over the new provisions, many Democrats felt obliged to swallow their pride and vote for the bill on final passage. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, whose Governmental Affairs committee first proposed the department over a year ago, at a time when the White House was dismissing the idea, said he was ``thrilled'' that a department largely of his architecture was finally approved.

``We finally have a bill which does what I wanted us to do for more than a year now, which is to organize our dangerously disorganized homeland defenses in response to Sept. 11,'' he said. ``It took too long to happen, and there are many things here I disagree with, but the good far outweighs the bad. It's very significant and critically important development for the security of the American people.''

Phil Gramm of Texas, the president's chief Senate supporter in changing the civil service protections in the bill, acknowledged that Democrats had written 95 percent of the bill, and acknowledged the paradoxical role of small-government Republicans like him in advocating for such a large department.

``I guess there is a little paradox in it,'' he said, in one of his last official remarks before retiring. ``I guess I would say two things give me solace. One, we're going to run this department better than we run the rest of the government, and we might learn something that could improve the rest of the government. And two, it is responding to a clear crisis where we had to respond.''

Nonetheless, Republicans were as angry as Democrats when they were forced to deal with a series of last-minute provisions for business interests that House Republican leaders inserted in the bill late last week, without bothering to tell Senate Republicans. Senator Lincoln D. Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, said when he entered a closed meeting of the party's caucus in the Capitol this morning, the entire caucus was incensed about the provisions. He and several other moderate Republicans were considering joining the Democrats and voting to delete the measures, which would have delayed final approval by weeks or months by sending the matter into a conference with the House.

``It was a complete cacophony,'' he said. ``Almost every senator was outraged about the Texas A&M clause, and some of the others. It was a question for me of how arrogant we were going to be after we have the White House and both houses of Congress - do we just assume that might makes right and anything goes?''

Faced with the strong possibility the bill would not be approved today, Mr. Lott scrambled to quell the rebellion by promising his caucus to undo what they considered to be the three most egregious House provisions. When Mr. Chafee and others asked for a similar promise from the House, Mr. Lott tracked down Speaker J. Dennis Hastert in Turkey, along with the incoming House Majority Leader, Tom Delay, and extracted their promises to do the same.

On the key vote over stripping the provisions, only one Republican - John McCain of Arizona - voted to do so, and three Democrats left their party's mainstream to vote no: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Ms. Landrieu is in a tight re-election race, and her vote means that Republicans cannot use the issue against her as they did other Democratic senators.

The interim senator from Minnesota, Dean Barkley, also voted with the Republicans to keep the business provisions in the bill. He later acknowledged that he received a welfare waiver for his state from the Bush administration after he agreed to support the bill. The waiver of federal requirements could save Minnesota millions of dollars in fines.

``It's not that my vote was tied to the waiver,'' he said in an interview. ``I had already decided to vote that way. But obviously if I could use my new popularity to move something for the state of Minnesota, I'd be remiss not to do it.''

Mr. Daschle questioned whether the Republicans were serious about removing the provisions next year.

``We've heard promises like that before,'' he said. ``And I have to say, if they are so bad, why didn't they take them out now, you know? Why wait? I think it's always harder to take things out than to put them in, and it will get even harder as we go into the next Congress. So I'm very dubious.''

<-- Return To TerrorSpeak

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