After months of partisan wrangling that threatened to undermine President Bush's plan to protect Americans against terrorism, the Senate voted Tuesday to create a Homeland Security Department.
The president is expected soon to appoint his White House homeland security adviser, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, to head the new department.
Just a few hours before the Senate voted 90-9 to approve the 484-page legislation, already passed by the House, the future of the new department was still in doubt. Not until Senate Republicans defeated a Democratic effort to remove several special interest provisions from the bill was it certain the measure would pass.
Clearing the homeland security measure was expected to be one of the last major acts of the 107th Congress' lame-duck session. Members of the House went home a week ago, leaving the Senate to either accept House-passed bills without change or to wait until next year to enact them.
The president proposed the homeland security measure in June, at a time when more Democrats than Republicans favored the establishment of a new department. It slowly lost Democratic support, however, after Bush asked for permission to operate the department outside the normal civil service rules that guarantee job security to federal workers.
The measure also allows the Homeland Security Department to circumvent some provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, product liability laws and a law written by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., that bars offshore companies from being federal contractors.
For the first time under this law, airline pilots will be permitted to carry guns. It would also delay for one year the deadline, originally set for Dec. 31, for airports to install explosive detection systems to screen all checked baggage.
The Homeland Security Department will be made up of 170,000 federal workers from 22 existing agencies. Not since President Harry S. Truman created the Defense Department in 1947 has there been such a massive bureaucratic shuffle at the federal level.
Bush was flying to Eastern Europe for a NATO meeting when the Senate voted, 52-to-47, against an amendment written by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., that would have stripped a number of controversial special interest measures from the bill. If the Lieberman amendment had passed, it would have ended Bush's chances of creating the new department this year.
From Air Force One, the president telephoned Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi to thank him for defeating the Democrats' last ditch effort to scuttle the bill.
"We're making great progress in the war on terror. Part of that progress will be the ability for us to protect the American people at home," Bush said. "This is a very important piece of legislation; it is landmark in its scope and it ends a session which has been two years' worth of legislative work which has been very productive for the American people."
During the debate, Lott pleaded with senators to reject the Lieberman amendment on grounds that the nation could no longer wait for the administration to put its antiterrorist plan into action.
"The terrorists are not going to wait for a process that goes on days, weeks or months," Lott told the Senate. ". . . We need to get this done and we need to do it now."
The most controversial special interest provision, added without fanfare just hours before the bill passed the House, protects pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits brought by families of about 150 autistic children who say the illness was caused by a mercury substance known as thimerosal that once was used as a preservative in childhood vaccines.
Democrats saw the measure as a payoff to drug manufacturers who spent millions of dollars to elect Republicans in the midterm election earlier this month. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota argued the provision should be struck from the bill because it was inserted "for all the wrong reasons."
But Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who helped put the amendment on the bill at the urging of Eli Lilly and other major drug companies, argued that the parents of the autistic children still will have legal recourse in the federal court of claims. He also noted that scientists have found no proven link between thimerosal and autism.
Democrats objected to a number of other special interest provisions, including one advocated by retiring Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, that singled out Texas A&M for research funding. Even some Republicans, including Lott, indicated they were not happy with Gramm's gift to his homestate university.
"We're going to change that," said Lott. He promised that Republicans and White House officials would recommend that some of these extraneous provisions be removed from the law during the early days of the 108th Congress, which begins in January.
For months, Democrats had objected to an early provision in the bill that would have allowed the president to deprive Homeland Security Department employees of some of the rights that other government workers have, including the right to be represented by a union.
The final measure included a compromise that would require the agency to negotiate any proposed workplace changes with the employees' union.
Many special interest groups strongly objected that the bill would create private industry advisory panels to work with the government on homeland security issues and exempt their work from public disclosure.
"Let's say there was an issue of bridge safety or something like that where inspection reports of bridges were sealed under this provision," said Bill Felber, freedom of information chairman for the Associated Press Managing Editors. "That's an issue that you or I or anyone who uses roads might have a real interest in and it would be inaccessible."
The nine senators who voted against the bill were Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.; Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.; Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii; Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii; Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Russell Feingold, D-Wis.; Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.; Carl Levin, D-Mich.; and independent James Jeffords of Vermont.
Elements of legislation to create a 170,000-employee Homeland Security Department:
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, Immigration and Naturalization Service
+ In a concession to Democrats who felt labor rules were being usurped, the agency is required to negotiate workplace changes with the employees' union. Absent agreement, the department can make whatever changes it wants.
+ The president can waive union rights for national security, but only after he notifies Congress and waits 10 days.
+ Allows commercial airline pilots to carry guns in cockpits.
+ Allows a one-year delay in the Dec. 31 deadline for airports to install explosive detection systems to screen all checked baggage.
+ Bars the department from doing business with American companies that move offshore to avoid U.S. taxes. The rule can be waived in certain instances.