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House endorses new security department

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 will begin 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. Eighty-eight Democrats joined 207 Republicans in favor, but 120 Democrats, 10 Republicans and two independents voted "no." All four west-central Florida representatives voted "yes."

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 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 creation of the Department of Defense after World War II. 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.

Approved a provision Democrats say expands the bill's lawsuit immunity protections for companies involved in homeland security work to apply to airport screening companies, some of which may have been involved in the Sept. 11 hijackings.

It was the personnel and labor issues, however, that sparked the most impassioned, partisan 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.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., chief sponsor of the Senate bill Bush opposes, urged both sides to take a deep breath before the relatively minor worker issues engulfed the Homeland Security bill in political acrimony.

"Let's all tone down the rhetoric and stop sounding false alarms," Lieberman told reporters.

The Senate version of the bill, which could reach the floor next week, does not include the administration's personnel flexibility requests. White House advisers say they would recommend a Bush veto if the Senate measure, which includes most of Bush's other priorities, prevails in the end.

The details

MAJOR AGENCIES TRANSFERRED TO HOMELAND SECURITY

Coast Guard

Customs Service

Border Patrol

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Secret Service

Transportation Security Administration

Border inspection part of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

WORK FORCE FLEXIBILITY

Emphasizes worker performance and accountability.

Permits broader job classifications and pay scales.

Allows waiver of union rights for national security.

Leaves intact provisions for civil rights, the disabled, age discrimination and whistleblowers.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION

Exempts from Freedom of Information Act new information about vulnerabilities provided to the department by people and businesses.

PRIVACY

Bans national identification cards or drivers licenses.

Bans federal programs that could encourage citizens to spy on each other.

Creates high-level privacy officer to safeguard civil liberties.

OTHER ISSUES

Provides liability protection for companies involved in homeland security work.

Moves Immigration and Naturalization Service processing functions to Justice Department.

Keeps issuance of visas to foreign visitors at State Department, with greater input by Homeland Security.

Establishes Homeland Security Research Center at one of the national laboratories.

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