11/14/02 8:03:16 AM Pacific Standard Time
Copyright 2002 by Agence France-Presse (via ClariNet)
|WASHINGTON, DC, 13-NOV-2002: Senators Tom Daschle
(L) and Trent Lott (2nd L) along with Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert
(2nd R) and Congressman Dick Gephardt (R) walk out of the West Wing of the
White House to speak to the media after a breakfast with President George
W. Bush in the Oval Office November 13, 2002 in Washington. Bush met with
Congressional Leadership to discuss passage of the Homeland Security Department
and the United Nations resolution on Iraq. [Photo by Stephen Jaffe, copyright
2002 by AFP and ClariNet]
VIEW LARGE PHOTO
WASHINGTON, Nov 14 (AFP) - In a major legislative victory for US President George W. Bush, the House of Representatives voted to create a multibillion-dollar agency to lead the nation's defenses against terrorism, with the Senate expected to follow in the coming days.
The compromise proposal hammered out between top lawmakers and the White House, which would bring about the largest reorganization of the US government since 1947, passed Wednesday in a 299-121 vote.
A final vote on the proposal in the US Senate could come as early as Friday.
Before Wednesday's vote, White House spokesman Scott McClellan hailed the compromise for ending a dispute with opposition Democrats over Bush's efforts to be able to hire, fire, re-train and promote employees stripped of civil service job protections.
"This legislation meets our requirements and gives the president the authority and the flexibility to protect the American people, and we are hopeful that Congress will get the legislation through by the holidays," he said.
The measure would create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security with some 170,000 employees and a 38-billion-dollar budget, by rolling all or part of 22 federal agencies into one super-agency.
The deal came after three Senate moderates -- Republican Lincoln Chafee and Democrats John Breaux and Ben Nelson -- came to an agreement with the White House on the issue of employees' rights.
Senate Democrats earlier had balked at giving the president power over department employees, insisting workers' rights had to be better protected.
Majority Leader Tom Daschle said that while he was against the compromise, because he believed it opened the door to worker abuse and did not provide adequate oversight of the new department, he would likely support final passage in order "to move the ball forward."
Originally crafted by lawmakers led by Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, Bush had been opposed to the plan until lawmakers launched a probe into the intelligence lapses that allowed al-Qaeda militants to strike with hijacked airliners, killing more that 3,000 people.
The president later took up the cause and made passage of his version of the legislation a key issue in the November 5 mid-term, legislative and gubernatorial elections.
But Lieberman, who said it was critical to pass the bill to close the "painfully serious" vulnerabilities in US national security, was disappointed that the final version of the bill had dropped the establishment of a commission to investigate the attacks.
"We owe this to the families of September 11 victims," he said on the Senate floor.
Although the new department absorbs such agencies as the Coast Guard and the US Secret Service, it will not include the Central Intelligence Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- the two agencies that came under the heaviest fire for 9-11 intelligence failures.
Some analysts believe the proposed department will be ungainly.
"It's a big, hugly, messy, bureaucratic organisation that will take years to realize," said Thomas Mann, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, an independent organization devoted to public policy research.
"It became more of a symbol and a political tool than a critical part of our domestic security efforts," Mann said, calling the proposed department a mere "realignment of the policies and programs" dealing with terrorism.
In a matter of hours on September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers took over four passenger planes, crashing three of them into the Pentagon and New York City's World Trade Center Towers. The fourth plane slammed into a field in Pennsylvania.
Other new provisions in the compromise bill include allowing pilots to carry guns in the cockpit, procedures to encourage private industry to share infrastructure vulnerabilities with the government, and setting up volunteer teams to help local communities respond and recover from attacks on information systems and communications networks.
It also provides for a one-year waiver for airports to comply with baggage screening security requirements.