The committee voted 10-7 to defeat an amendment offered by ranking member Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., that would have restored some of the managerial flexibility sought by the administration that Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., left out of his draft of the bill.
Lieberman said existing civil service laws should apply to the department's employees. He was joined by all panel Democrats and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who charged that the White House plan is "too broad."
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, also voted with Democrats to defeat Thompson's amendment.
Still, Thompson and most Republicans said it is important for the president to have the flexibility to establish an agile agency. Creating the new department is "something like an elephant on roller skates trying to learn to juggle," Thompson said. "We need innovation and flexibility."
On the House side, Republican leaders Wednesday expressed growing confidence that they have addressed concerns among rank-and-file members about civil service protections in the homeland bill and now are poised to pass the legislation by an overwhelming margin.
The GOP leaders have received strong backing from President Bush, who was scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon with separate groups of Republican and Democratic lawmakers to discuss labor protections and other lingering issues.
"There's more work to do, but we've made great progress over the last 24 hours," said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who served on the select committee that fashioned the legislation due to come before the House Thursday. Portman said leadership is meeting legislators and "spelling out" the labor protections in the bill, which he claimed go beyond those in legislation that created the Transportation Safety Administration last year.
"The only reason we're still not there," Portman said of efforts to develop a consensus, "is because the [federal] employee unions are still not there. But I hope they'll be there at the end of the process..."
Portman said the bill would provide workers with full Title V protections and spell out civil rights protections, but stressed that managerial flexibility on personnel issues and limited authority to transfer funds within the department were essential.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said he is watching to see whether negotiations produce anything acceptable to Democrats.
"There are discussions taking place," he said. "We'll have to see what they bring to the table."
But one labor official said there were "no serious talks" under way and suggested Portman was circulating proposed language changes that were "worse than the original language."
Labor groups are pressing their case on Capitol Hill and at the grassroots level. A spokesman for moderate Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., who met with Bush Tuesday, said his office was being inundated with calls from union members in his Buffalo district. He said Quinn was still anxious to "find a middle ground" on the labor language.