WASHINGTON -- The Republican-led House voted Friday to create an enormous Homeland Security Department, the biggest government reorganization in decades. It grants President Bush broad personnel powers he insists are key to confronting an agile, cunning terrorist threat.
The 295-132 vote sets up a clash with the Senate, where Democrats have written a version that Bush is threatening to veto on grounds it ties his hands on hiring and firing.
"A time of war is the wrong time to weaken the president's ability to protect the American people," the president said at the White House earlier in the day.
In a statement after the bill passed, the president said the House "has shown a strong commitment to improving the security of the American people, and I urge the senators to do the same before they leave for the August recess." That break begins next Friday.
Closing House debate, Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said the new Cabinet agency "will focus the resources of this government on our safety and on our security -- on the defeat of villainy."
But many Democrats were dissatisfied, saying the bill could undermine worker civil service and union protections, shroud too much information in secrecy and threaten air passenger safety.
$38 billion budget
With the White House issuing veto threats against a Senate bill that omits those powers, the House earlier Friday voted 229-201 along party lines for a GOP amendment by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., allowing the president to waive labor union protections for specific national security reasons -- a slightly higher standard than exists under current law.
The legislation merges 22 federal entities into a single, 170,000-worker department with a $38 billion budget -- the biggest government reorganization since the 1940s. The Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Customs Service, Transportation Security Administration, Secret Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency are among those to be transferred.
Debating over a dozen other amendments during a daylong session, the House:
Reaffirmed on a narrow 217-211 vote a one-year delay in this year's deadline for airports to begin screening checked baggage for explosives. Opponents of the postponement -- to Dec. 31, 2003 -- said it would endanger the flying public, but sponsors said it would give airports time to install the necessary machinery.
Defeated a Democratic effort to scrap the bill's exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act for information about potential vulnerabilities given to the new department voluntarily by the private sector.
Defeated an amendment transferring authority for issuing visas to foreign visitors from the State Department to the new agency.
It was the personnel and labor issues, however, that sparked the most impassioned debate in a House narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Adding to the tensions, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney issued a statement calling Bush's veto threat "misguided."
"History has proven that guaranteeing workers their rights does not imperil national security," Sweeney said.