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Senators question Bush effort to loosen civil service rules

White House Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge faced tough questions from Senators Thursday about how the Bush administration would use the flexibility it is seeking to staff and run its proposed Homeland Security Department.

White House Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge made his first formal appearance before Congress Thursday, facing tough questions about how the Bush administration would use the flexibility it is seeking to staff and run its proposed Homeland Security Department.

Members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee focused on Bush's call for flexibility in hiring and acquisition practices at the new department, with Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., warning that changes in the civil service system should be avoided in this legislation.

"I think it's unfortunate that the administration has included in their legislation the power to install a new civil service system that could represent a major departure from current law," Lieberman said in his opening statement.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said agencies have extensive flexibility in existing law and warned against "overlook[ing] the fundamental rights of our federal employees" as the new department is constructed.

But Governmental Affairs ranking member Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and other panel Republicans asserted that additional flexibility was essential to developing the department. "Homeland security is too important not to have a high-performance, accountable workforce," Thompson said.

Lieberman is unlikely to include civil service reforms in his legislative package to create the department, according to a source close to Lieberman.

"My guess is it won't be addressed [in legislation Lieberman plans to put together] because Lieberman opposes it," his spokeswoman said later.

The spokeswoman said the question of federal employee rights was one of the major "complications" facing the proposal, along with issues such as coordination of intelligence activities.

A source close to Thompson said the Tennessee Republican did not believe the administration was seeking "blanket exemptions" or to pursue a "massive civil service reform" through this bill. "We are hopeful this will not be a major issue," the source said.

During the hearing, Akaka and other panel Democrats stressed the need to preserve federal workers' rights as they are shifted into the new department.

And at least one Republican on the Governmental Affairs panel--Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio--would not support efforts to strip away rights of federal workers who are shifted into the new department, according to Voinovich's spokesman.

"The administration isn't looking to bust the union, and any attempt to do that, he would oppose," Voinovich's spokesman said, adding that Voinovich believes the administration was pursuing new flexibility in hiring and ways to retain workers.

"That's the kind of flexibility we're talking about," the spokesman said, noting that Voinovich had introduced separate legislation Thursday on federal recruitment and retention policy.

"We have got to have the unions involved and engaged for this [homeland security effort] to be successful, and the administration understands that," the Voinovich spokesman said.

Voinovich--who spent a decade as the mayor of heavily Democratic Cleveland--enjoys a warm relationship with federal employee unions, and labor sources said they believed he would put his imprint on the plan as it moves through the committee.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said the union hopes to be able to support Voinovich's bill, but added that federal workers remain deeply suspicious about the administration's plans.

"What the president's language does is create the potential for an awful lot of changes, but they've never been able to tell us what they want to change and why," Kelley said. "I think there is bipartisan support in both the House and Senate for Sen. Lieberman's position that this isn't the place for this discussion."

Another labor official said the federal workers' unions would mount a campaign to educate lawmakers about the flexibility that exists within the civil service system --a point Akaka made during Thursday's hearing.

"The law doesn't prevent people from being transferred--these boxes aren't locked into place with glue," the source said.

An official at the Office of Personnel Management repeated administration assurances that federal employees would bring their current rights with them to the new department, but that the new Homeland Security secretary could decide to rewrite the rules in the future.

"Things are very much in flux right now," the official said.

The question of whether Homeland Security Department employees will be able to belong to a union in the future "is still being looked at. There are no guarantees," the official added.

At the Senate hearing, Ridge also faced extensive questioning on whether President Bush's restructuring plan would resolve long-standing communications problems within the U.S. intelligence community--particularly between the CIA and FBI.

Governmental Affairs Permanent Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the proposal "leaves the problems, the gaps … unanswered."

Ridge defended the proposed set-up, saying the plan builds new "redundancy" into intelligence analysis, adding, "They have the capacity to connect the dots."

But Ridge agreed this issue would require further consultation with Congress. Ridge also testified before the House Government Reform Committee Thursday afternoon.

The Governmental Affairs Committee will hold additional hearings next week on intelligence coordination. Although no markup schedule has been announced, Lieberman said he wanted to bring the package to the Senate floor by mid-July. Lieberman said he hopes the final version would be ready for the president's signature "by Sept. 11 at best, by the end of the session at the least."

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Wednesday that House leaders hope to bring a bill to the floor the week of July 21.