Labor union politics behind sluggish Senate debate on homeland

Sunday, September 29, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Election-year politics are a chief reason for the Senate's impasse on creating a Homeland Security Department. Democrats are refusing to buck their allies in organized labor and give President Bush the broad power he demands to hire and fire agency workers.

With the Nov. 5 elections fast approaching, Republicans increasingly see the bill as a chance to force Democrats into an uncomfortable choice between a popular president and unions that overwhelmingly support Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., implied the connection when he said Friday that Democrats "are determined not to let a bill go through that these public sector unions are not satisfied with, and it's very interesting why they're so overwrought over that."

Bush wants broad authority to hire, fire and deploy the 170,000 workers that would be transferred to the new Cabinet-level agency to meet emerging terrorist threats. The president contends Democrats are trying to limit his existing authority to exempt department workers from union bargaining agreements for reasons of national security.

Republicans are engaging in "cynical manipulation" and seeking to gain political advantage on the worker rights issue, says Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.

Some Democrats question whether the GOP prefers letting the bill die and blaming it on Democrats and unions.

"I feel as though I am being set up," Mikulski said. "If we stand up for the workers, we are somehow or another slowing down the debate on homeland security."

Bush critical of labor

While campaigning Friday for GOP candidates, Bush went after labor leaders, arguing they have hindered steps to tighten border security. He criticized union protests of Customs Service efforts to get emergency contact numbers for its workers and require those inspecting shipping containers at the nation's 301 ports to wear radiation detectors.

Democrats rely heavily on unions for campaign money. Unions this year have given 92 percent of their contributions, or more than $49 million, to Democratic candidates or organizations, according to the most recent reports from the Center for Responsive Politics, which closely tracks political donations. The GOP has gotten about $4 million.

Unions representing government employees are among the most generous and play important roles in races that could decide control of the Senate.

South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, in a tight re-election race with GOP Rep. John Thune, tops the list in contributions from these unions at $82,750. Following close behind are other Democrats up for re-election, including Max Cleland of Georgia at $80,500, Minnesota's Sen. Paul Wellstone at $74,500 and Jean Carnahan of Missouri at $67,700.

Democrats and labor unions, including the powerful AFL-CIO, contend that they are simply trying to prevent an assault by the White House on fundamental principles of collective bargaining. They say Bush's demand for greater personnel authority in a Homeland Security Department is part of a broader agenda to bust unions, not to enhance protection against terrorism.

"This is an attack on organized labor," said Bobby L. Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "It's about taking away a fundamental right of all citizens, which is the right of free association. It's not about national security."

Added Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union: "The administration saw this as an opportunity from the very beginning to start with a blank sheet of paper where they could write all the rules."

The unions have mobilized their forces, with the AFL-CIO including on its Internet site a form e-mail message that can be sent to any senator urging opposition to Bush's plan.

Politics is also behind the maneuverings on the Senate floor, where it essentially comes down to who gets the first vote: Bush or the Democrats, in the form of an alternative that gives the president some management flexibility but places more conditions on him in order to waive employee union rights.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, is insisting that Bush's plan be voted on first, on the theory that many Democrats would support the president's proposal and abandon their party's alternative.

Democrats noted that Republicans voted against cutting off Senate debate on the president's plan, evidence to them of GOP intentions to drag out the issue. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said his complaints alleging Republican "politicization" of the Iraq war issue also apply to the delay on homeland security.

"They are extending this debate indefinitely for reasons that are inexplicable. They may be explicable," Daschle said.

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