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Homeland security bill clears House

Congressional leaders, left to right, Tom Daschle, Trent Lott, Dennis Hastert and Richard Gephardt leave the White House after meeting with President Bush.
Congressional leaders, left to right, Tom Daschle, Trent Lott, Dennis Hastert and Richard Gephardt leave the White House after meeting with President Bush.

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CNNfn's Tim O'Brien reports on what the Department of Homeland Security may look like once U.S. President Bush signs it into law (November 14)
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CNN's John King says political realignment of the U.S. Congress is leading to the fast-tracking of a homeland security reorganization bill (November 13)
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White House and congressional leaders reached a compromise they hope will pave the way for creation of the Department of Homeland Security. CNN's Skip Loescher reports (November 13)
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• Text of Homeland Security Bill  (Findlaw PDF)external link
Creates a Cabinet-level department out of all or parts of 22 agencies -- including Customs, INS and the Transportation Security Administration -- with about 170,000 workers and a $37 billion budget.

Grants the president flexibility to hire and fire workers, but gives unions a chance to challenge new rules.

Approves a plan to allow pilots to carry guns in cockpits.

Drops a provision to create an independent commission to investigate intelligence surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House of Representatives Wednesday passed a bill to create a Cabinet-level homeland security agency, and congressional leaders told President Bush they expect to have the measure on his desk by next week.

The bill, passed by the House in a 299-121 vote, is a compromise measure, meant to break an impasse over labor rights and civil service protection for the estimated 170,000 workers in the proposed Department of Homeland Security.

The same bill is also expected to pass in the Senate, which took up the measure Wednesday afternoon but has not voted on it yet.

"I have every expectation we can finish within the week -- within a week, not this week," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota.

The proposed agency would combine workers from 22 agencies, including the Border Patrol, Coast Guard and Customs Service, into one Cabinet department with a $37 billion budget. Congressional sources said the new compromise would give Bush the flexibility he needs to hire and fire workers in the new department, while giving unions a right to challenge new rules.

But the measure introduced Wednesday drops previous provisions to create an independent commission to investigate intelligence lapses before the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes. Negotiations on creating an independent September 11 commission are continuing, several administration and congressional sources said.

"What you don't want is something that is designed to generate an October 2004 surprise," said one senior congressional source involved in the negotiations.

The stated goal of such a panel would be to review what government agencies knew -- or perhaps should have known -- prior to September 11 about the threat of a terrorist strike on the United States. Negotiators hope to resolve the issue early in the new Congress, which convenes in January, several sources said.

The White House initially opposed an independent review, but ultimately gave the idea public backing after it was clear there was bipartisan support in Congress and after several family members of September 11 victims criticized the White House for opposing the review.

One of the most vocal of those family members, Stephen Push, said Wednesday that there are thousands of unanswered questions about the attacks on New York and Washington.

"Without the independent commission to understand what went wrong on 9/11, we are not going to be able to fix the problems that allowed these terrorists to kill 3,000 people a year ago," said Push, whose wife was killed in the attack on the Pentagon.

Three moderate senators, John Breaux, D-Louisiana, Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, and Lincoln Chafee, R-Rhode Island, crafted the compromise on workers' rights with Lott and the White House.

"We believe this new proposal represents improvement in the personnel flexibility provisions [from the original GOP proposal]," Breaux, Chafee and Nelson said in a written statement.

Under the tentative agreement, if the department or the White House wants to make a change in the rules governing its employees, it must first inform union representatives. The federal employees union then has 30 days to offer proposed changes to the new rule.

If the two sides do not come to an immediate agreement, the department's secretary could declare an impasse, which would trigger two actions: The department would send proposed changes and union objections to Congress for review; and the two sides would enter a 30-day mediation process with an independent board.

If that mediation process failed and no common ground was found between the government and the employees, the secretary could go ahead and implement the proposed changes.

The House of Representatives had already passed a White House-backed version of the measure, but Senate Democrats said that version would give Bush too much power and undercut civil service protections for workers. The version the House is to vote on Wednesday will supercede the earlier one.

According to congressional sources, provisions allowing guns in planes' cockpits and smallpox vaccinations are also included in the proposal.

--CNN Correspondents John King and Kate Snow, and Producer Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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