New winds blow for whistleblower protection groups

With scars to prove the delicacy of the negotiations, good-government advocates are promising to be open to compromise as they prepare to renew a bruising fight over federal whistleblower protection.

These advocates, believing that the threat of a veto has vanished with the arrival of a new administration, also hope a compromise can be reached to ensure that whistleblower protections will be become law as part of President Obama's much touted economic stimulus measure.

This hope comes even as some privately grumbled Tuesday that a stand-alone whistleblower protection bill introduced by Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, omits the same set of controversial protections that prompted resistance and, ultimately, a stalemate at the end of the 110th Congress.

Last year, talks between backers of competing stand-alone whistleblower measures crumbled over two hotly debated issues addressed by the House bill but left out of the Senate version: the availability of jury trials for whistleblowers facing retaliation from employers, and an extension of protections to U.S. intelligence personnel.

The same conflict is mirrored in the current whistleblower measures, one that Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Todd Platts, R-Pa., added to the House stimulus bill and the other by Akaka and Collins. But some of the same groups that attacked the 2007 Senate bill -- sponsored by Akaka and Collins -- for lacking teeth now indicate that they might be softening on one of the two issues.

Introduction of the Akaka-Collins bill is seen by some as an effort to stake out a Senate negotiating position when Senate and House conferees on a final stimulus bill take up the House-passed Van Hollen-Platts amendment.

"If push came to shove, if we were asked to make a trade, we could be more flexible on the national security issue," said Angela Canterbury, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen.

Adam Miles, who lobbies for the Government Accountability Project, called the House language in the stimulus bill -- approved by voice vote last week - "the best-practices model," but added that the stand-alone Senate bill includes unique and desirable provisions as well.

"We would encourage them to work in any stimulus conference to make sure that the rights of whistleblowers are fully protected," Miles said.

Canterbury and Miles both said their groups are less willing to budge on the matter of jury trials for whistleblowers, another provision excluded from the Akaka-Collins bill. The House language in the stimulus bill would allow federal workers faced with retaliation for blowing the whistle the option of bypassing the administrative Merit Systems Protection Board in favor of federal District Court if the board failed to issue a timely decision on their case.

The groups' public keenness to offer concessions over the extension of whistleblowers rights to national security professionals has much to do with the new commander in chief.

The Bush administration, fearing that such protections could result in the disclosure of classified information, stridently opposed the 2007 House bill.

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