GOP seeks to broker deal on civil service issues in homeland bill

Seeking to avoid a war over homeland security at a markup Friday, House Republicans are scrambling to reach a compromise with Democrats over the civil service rules that would govern the 170,000 employees of the proposed Homeland Security Department.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, the chairman of the ad hoc Homeland Security Committee, excluded the employment section from the homeland security legislation he unveiled today. Instead, he and other Republicans on the select committee are meeting with Democrats to try to find a middle ground between the Bush administration's plan to give the department's secretary broad authority to waive civil service laws and the traditional practices endorsed by the Government Reform Committee last week.

Republicans on the ad hoc panel said they made progress at an hour-long, closed-door meeting today. Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, emerged from the session saying "big progress" had been made. She told reporters that "most employee rights" will be covered by the legislation.

Democrats were more skeptical. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost of Texas said the GOP proposal was very general and added that it was impossible to tell if progress was made until Republicans produce something in writing.

Republicans plan to draft the new employment provisions, but some were skeptical that a deal could be reached before Friday's markup.

Most House Republicans agree ideologically with the White House approach, but know they will need the support of Democrats to move homeland security legislation through the House next week by a large margin.

GOP sources on the ad hoc committee said any compromise with the Democrats, who want to safeguard current civil service protections for employees of the new department, would involve a hybrid of the White House plan and the Government Reform Committee proposal.

"Some of what the Government Reform Committee did is excellent work and some of it can be improved upon," said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a committee member.

Republican leaders also hope to reach deals on a pair of other issues that could help smooth the bill's path to enactment. Republicans hope to mollify House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and his committee members who fear that moving the Coast Guard into the new department would damage the Coast Guard's traditional search and rescue functions. Republican leaders are honing a plan that would guarantee that the Coast Guard's budget for non-security programs would not suffer if it becomes a part of the Homeland Security Department.

"I think [Young] will be satisfied," one GOP leadership source said. "There is no lack of commitment to the Coast Guard in this proposal."

House leaders also have encouraged the Appropriations Committee to negotiate a deal on funding flexibility with the White House. In his bill released today, Armey sided with the appropriators, but the White House may require some discretion over department funding in order to sign off on the legislation.

The bill also adopts a number of the recommendations made by committees in the last week, according to a summary of the bill distributed by Armey. For example, the bill sides with the Judiciary Committee in splitting the Immigration and Naturalization Service and with the International Relations panel by leaving visa authority with the State Department.

The bill also would permit the proposed department's secretary to block freedom of information requests for new information provided to the department-but not for existing information.

On privacy issues, the bill would prohibit the department from nationalizing drivers' licenses and create a privacy officer at the department to "ensure technology research and new regulations from the department respect the civil liberties our citizens enjoy," according to the bill summary.

The bill also seeks to make the department accountable to Congress by banning the secretary from reorganizing agencies transferred to the department.

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