WASHINGTON -- Legislation creating a Homeland Security Department to meet terrorist threats was on "life support" Tuesday after the Senate again failed to break an impasse over labor rights affecting thousands of workers who would be transferred.
The legislation was once considered a sure bet to sail through Congress.
The Senate temporarily moved on to other business after Democratic leaders failed by 15 votes to achieve the 60 necessary to bring more than four weeks of debate to a close. Although negotiations were continuing to reach compromise, many lawmakers said the likelihood of a deal was growing dimmer before the Nov. 5 elections.
"I, for one, think the bill's on a life-support system," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. "Unless something happens in the very near future, there will not be a homeland security bill this year."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, however, insisted that lawmakers would not abandon the massive government reorganization plan, even raising the possibility that Congress would return after the election to complete the job.
"We're going to stay on this bill and we're going to figure out how to finish it," said Daschle, D-S.D.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush has contacted numerous Republicans and Democrats in an effort to get a deal and said the issue would come up when legislative leaders come to the White House for a Wednesday meeting.
"It would just be unimaginable for the Senate to leave town without having taken action to protect the homeland," Fleischer told reporters.
The central dividing point for Democrats and Republicans remained President Bush's demand for flexibility to hire, fire and deploy the proposed agency's 170,000 workers and for continued authority to waive union bargaining agreements for national security reasons.
Bush and the Republicans say these powers are essential to create a nimble agency that can react quickly to terrorist threats.
Democrats are backing an alternative that includes much of the personnel flexibility Bush wants but imposes conditions he finds unacceptable.
on the president's use of the union national security waiver. Many Democrats say Bush's plan amounts to an assault on union bargaining rights.
Other than that, the two sides are largely in agreement on a measure that would combine 22 existing federal entities into a giant new Cabinet department.