WASHINGTON -- President Bush's insistence on winning broad personnel powers over the proposed Homeland Security Department is an insult to unionized government employees, the chief Senate sponsor of legislation that would establish the agency said Sunday.
"This is a phony issue, and it ought not to stop the president from signing this bill," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. "This bill will protect the American people."
The White House threatened last week to veto legislation that does not give Bush what he says is the flexibility to manage the department's 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 statute -- when it serves our national interest," Bush said.
But, he added Friday, "the notion of flexibility will in no way undermine the basic rights of federal workers. Workers will retain whistle-blower protection, collective bargaining rights, and protection against unlawful discrimination."
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that flexibility is critical to averting problems of "waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, inability to coordinate their computers, dysfunctional personnel systems" that plague government bureaucracies.
"Now we're coming along and trying to merge 22 of these departments into a new entity," Thompson said. "It's going to be extremely difficult under the best of circumstances, so we've got to have some management flexibility."
The Republican-controlled House gave Bush the powers he seeks in legislation it passed Friday night.
With the Senate looking to adjourn at the end of the coming week, Lieberman met with Bush on the matter Friday.
The measure is a priority for the president and for Congress, but Bush and the Democrat-controlled Senate have dug their heels in on the personnel issue.
Thompson said he did not believe the Senate will pass a measure before it leaves for recess this Friday. But, he said, "There's no reason we can't do it by the time we go out of session" this fall.
Under his bill, Lieberman said that if the president determines that union membership would interfere with national security responsibilities in newly created posts, he could strip the workers' rights to union membership.
"In saying that he might veto the homeland security bill because of the fact that we will not accept the dropping of civil service protections and collective bargaining rights of federal employees, President Bush is putting a totally unnecessary obstacle on the path to what we all want to do," Lieberman told CBS.
"It's really not only irrelevant but, in my opinion, an insult to public employees who are unionized to suggest that, for some reason, they can't carry out their job as customs inspectors or border patrol just because they're members of the union," Lieberman said.
The White House initially couched its veto threat as a "recommendation" from unidentified advisers to Bush.
Lieberman said Bush must be getting "bad advice from some advisers, some folks in the White House who are following a more extreme agenda or a political agenda or a reflexively anti-public employee" agenda.
The senator, who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, also said Sunday he is strongly leaning toward running for the White House in 2004, if Al Gore, the 2000 presidential nominee, does not.