WASHINGTON -- The White House threatened to veto legislation approved by a Senate committee Thursday that creates a mammoth Homeland Security Department, contending President Bush would have little power to react quickly to terrorist threats.
The bill, written largely by Senate Democrats, does not include the flexibility that Bush wants over managers and employees at the 170,000-worker Cabinet agency, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. As a result, Bush advisers would recommend a veto, he said.
The president reinforced that message in a speech in High Point, N.C., although he did not mention a veto.
"I just want to make sure that Congress understands that when we do this department, I've got to have the ability to manage the department in a way to make the homeland more secure," Bush said. "I'm not interested in something big. I'm interested in something that works."
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee passed the bill by a 12-5 vote. The House opened debate Thursday night, with a final vote planned Friday on most amendments and the main bill, which is closer to Bush's blueprint.
Some start-up worries
Despite broad support overall for the plan, some House members worried about chaos during the agency's start-up.
They said staffing and money problems would not disappear with the transfer of 22 government entities into the new department.
"This is political cover for operational problems the administration doesn't want to solve," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.
Most lawmakers said it was time to move ahead. "What we're trying to do is create an integrated Department of Homeland Security to make us safer," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
Senate Democrats contend that giving Bush the personnel flexibility he says he needs would undermine civil service benefits and protections and jeopardize collective bargaining rights.
Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said the president's plan amounts to "a blank check to hire, fire, sanction, whatever, individual employees."
Republicans say a department dedicated to tracking a shadowy enemy and preventing terrorist attacks should not be shackled by burdensome rules.
"We're creating more responsibilities and fewer tools to deal with those responsibilities -- and that's a recipe for failure," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.
Despite the dispute, lawmakers of both parties say the expect Congress and the White House to agree on creating the department.
With some exceptions, both the House and Senate bills mirror Bush's proposals to transfer such agencies as the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Border Patrol, Customs Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the just-created Transportation Security Administration.
"There are differences, but I would say they are at the margins," said the Senate committee chairman, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. "This bill gives the president about 90 percent of what he asked for."
The House legislation splits the Immigration and Naturalization Service between the new agency and the Justice Department -- Bush did not propose that. It includes a one-year extension of the deadline for airports to begin screening checked bags for explosives.
The Senate committee appeased many coastal-state senators by voting for language designed to ensure that the Coast Guard's nonsecurity missions -- such as fisheries management, navigation, marine search-and rescue -- would not become lower priorities under the new agency.
"What we are trying to do is safeguard the vital life-and-death traditional missions of the Coast Guard," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Both versions of the legislation rejected Bush's request for the power to transfer up to 5 percent of the agency's budget without congressional approval.
On other security issues, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved two bills Thursday that supporters said would strengthen safeguards at chemical and nuclear power plants.
Legislation by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., would create a task force and presidential team to review security at nuclear power plants. The measure also would set up an office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
A bill by Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., would require high-priority chemical plants to assess their security vulnerabilities and to develop plans to make any upgrades necessary.
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