Democrats question items in homeland bill
McCain says he will support effort to strip provisions
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The bill creating a Department of Homeland Security faced a new hurdle Tuesday following an announcement by Republican Sen. John McCain that he would side with Democrats on a key vote to strip seven "special-interest" provisions from the bill passed last week by the GOP-led House.
"I don't support a process where the House of Representatives throws a major piece of legislation over to the Senate and says good-bye," McCain said Monday.
McCain's switch, as well as the uncertain votes of a handful of Democratic senators and independent Dean Barkley of Minnesota, left the bill's passage in doubt.
If the provisions are killed from the bill, the House, which left town last week, would need to return to negotiate the differences in the bills and pass a compromise, if one can be reached.
Democrats say the legislation provides liability protection for pharmaceutical companies for the vaccines they make, allows the Homeland Security department to hold committee meetings in secret -- and makes it more difficult for the Transportation Security Agency to issue some security rules for travelers.
Republicans in the House added the provisions to the legislation before it was passed there last week. The bill, if enacted, would create a 170,000-employee department dedicated to fighting domestic terrorism.
"This homeland security bill, the bill the president supported, was 35 pages long. The bill that I've been asked to vote on Monday or Tuesday is 484 pages long, filled with special interest legislation, loaded up by the House Republicans in the last few days," Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Republicans defend the provisions as legitimate and say they pertain to homeland security. For example, they say new liability protections are needed to encourage companies to develop new anti-terrorism technologies.
Several Republicans said the Democrats raised the objections because they don't want to see the bill enacted.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, issued a statement saying House Republicans should return to Washington and take on the Senate Democrats, particularly Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota.
"By thwarting the new Homeland Security Department, Daschle's continued obstruction ignores the American people's unmistakable demand to grant President Bush the authority to strengthen the country," he said.
The provisions, as described by Daschle's office, would do the following:
• Enact new liability protection for pharmaceutical companies for the vaccines they make.
• Gut a Senate amendment that would prohibit the government from signing contracts with companies that move their headquarters offshore -- where they don't have to pay U.S. taxes.
• Create a homeland security research center program at a U.S. university. Democrats say the legislation is written in such a way as to create the center at Texas A&M University in Texas, home to some powerful GOP lawmakers and Bush.
• Provide liability protection for airport screening companies.
• Provide liability protection for companies that sell anti-terrorism technologies or products.
• Erect barriers to the Transportation Security Agency for the issuance of some security rules for travelers.
• Allow the Department of Homeland Security to hold advisory committee meetings in secret, a move Democrats say is a gift to corporate lobbyists.
"If this is a homeland security bill, let's keep it homeland security related and let's take out all this terrible special-interest legislation that has nothing to do with homeland security," Daschle said last week.
At the White House, deputy press secretary Scott McClellan did not respond Monday directly when asked about the provisions cited by Democrats, but he said the administration did not want to see anything done to the bill that would slow its passage.
"This remains the highest priority for this lame duck Congress," McClellan said. "The president made that clear. We would hope that there would not be action taken that could stop this bill from getting done."
If Democrats succeed in stripping out the provisions, that could complicate final passage of the homeland security bill because the version passed by the House includes the provisions.
In a statement, Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican who has played a lead role in guiding the legislation through the Senate, said altering the legislation could delay passage of the overall bill this year.
"We have to ask ourselves if these issues rise to the level of importance to merit further prolonging creation of a department to ensure our nation's security," he said.
Thompson also defended the provision that guts the ban on government contracts with U.S. companies that move offshore, saying it was justified because foreign companies on U.S. soil can bid on such contracts.
On Sunday, White House homeland security chief Tom Ridge defended another provision that has generated controversy -- the one dealing with vaccines.
Democrats -- and even one Republican, Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana -- say it takes away the legal rights of families whose children were harmed by vaccines.
Ridge said that was not the case, saying such families had access to a government compensation fund and if they were not satisfied there, "they still reserve the right to litigate it."
CNN Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.