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House passes homeland security bill

Bush presses for management flexibility

From Kelly Wallace and Dana Bash
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. House of Representatives Friday night passed legislation that would create a Homeland Security Department.

The vote, by a margin of 295 to 132, moves the federal government closer to the creation of a large new Cabinet-level agency that would take over responsibilities related to national security that are now spread out over 22 other agenciesa range of other departments. The legislation now moves to the Senate.

Earlier Friday, Bush warned Congress he would reject any bill that limits his management flexibility in running the department. Many Democrats say the administration is seeking to undermine worker rights.

Bush's objections center on a Senate version of the bill, passed by a committee Thursday, creating that Cabinet-level agency. The administration wants more authority to hire, fire and transfer agency employees.

"I'm not going to accept legislation that limits or weakens the president's well-established authorities -- authorities to exempt parts of government from federal labor management relations statutes -- when it serves our national interest,"

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Bush said in a morning speech at the Old Executive Office Building.

"Every president since Jimmy Carter has used this statutory authority, and a time of war is the wrong time to weaken the president's ability to protect the American people," he added.

Bush praised Congress for its quick response to the September 11 attacks, but said a president must be able to exempt parts of the government from federal labor rules, so homeland security officials can "get the right people in the right job at the right time."

He said the new secretary of the department will have to be able to shift resources quickly to respond to terrorist threats, without being held up by bureaucratic red tape.

Bush rejected criticism that his administration was trying to limit the rights of federal workers.

"The notion of flexibility will in no way undermine the basic rights of federal workers," Bush said. "Workers will retain whistle-blower protection, collective bargaining rights and protection against unlawful discrimination."

A Senate committee, by a vote of 12 to 5, passed a bill Thursday creating a new Department of Homeland Security, but without giving the president the flexibility he wants over agency employees.

Three Republicans voted with Democrats to pass the measure in committee. The full Senate could vote on the issue next week. Negotiators would then have to resolve any differences between the House and Senate bills.

Senate Democrats have argued that the president's proposal would not ensure that agency employees have civil service protections and would not protect the collective bargaining rights of union workers.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the employees of the Homeland Security Department would have all civil service protections, such as civil rights protections and protections from discrimination, but stressed the president believes managers must have more flexibility "than is found in current law."

Fleischer cited examples such as how if a Border Patrol agent were found to be intoxicated on the job and allowed a potential terrorist into the United States, under the Senate bill, that employee could not be fired without a written 30-day notice and must get paid during the notice period. The Bush spokesman also said there was a need to ease "cumbersome" procedures to give someone a raise or to move employees around.

Senate confirmation issue

The administration is also against a provision making the director of the White House Office of Homeland Security a position that must be confirmed by the Senate.

"That's a non-starter for this president," Fleischer said.

Despite the dispute over workers, the Senate bill largely mirrors Bush's proposal to transfer the Coast Guard, Customs, Border Patrol and other agencies into the new Department.

Bush's proposal calls for all or parts of 22 government agencies to be pulled together under the umbrella of a single department committed to protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. The proposed department would have nearly 170,000 employees, and a budget of $37.4 billion.

Senators Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat, plan to offer the president's Homeland Security plan when the Senate debates the issue, as early as next week.

CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.




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