Senate, House homeland drafts will mimic Bush proposal

In an auspicious sign for homeland security legislation, the Republican-run House and Democratic-controlled Senate both are preparing bills creating a Homeland Security Department that largely track President Bush's original plan, according to sources working on the measures.

Taken together, the developments make it more likely that Congress and the White House can reach agreement on legislation in the next few months to consolidate many of the government's homeland security functions into a single department.

All three proposals would create a robust new department with authority over the Coast Guard, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"In regard to what goes in the department, there are not many differences," said one source.

But important conflicts remain over how much flexibility the department will have over funding and whether its employees will enjoy current civil-service protections.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., also is expected to include language that would make the White House's homeland security adviser-currently Tom Ridge-subject to congressional oversight and approval. The administration opposes that effort.

In another blow to the White House, the House and Senate bills are expected to exclude a request to give the new department's secretary broad discretion over appropriated funds.

And, on another front, the White House and Democrats disagree over how much flexibility the department's secretary should have over hiring, firing and rewarding employees.

The Bush administration and many Republicans say the president should have sweeping flexibility to be free of current civil service laws, to create a modern and less bureaucratic department.

"With a mission this critical, we cannot afford a personnel system that rewards mediocrity and demoralizes high performers," Kay James, the head of the Office of Personnel Management, told a House committee Tuesday.

But Democrats are wary of loosening labor laws for the department. Last week, Democrats on the House Government Reform Committee muscled an amendment through the panel to restore the civil service protections.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, the chairman of the House's Homeland Security panel, is expected Thursday to release a bill that sticks to Bush's proposal and ignores the committee amendment.

However, Lieberman, who is drafting the Senate version of the bill, plans to safeguard the civil service laws.

Lieberman's bill also is expected to endorse other good-government practices, such as freedom-of-information procedures and whistleblower protections.

Aside from the labor and funding conflicts, most provisions in the House and Senate proposals closely follow the White House plan. That does not mean the administration's proposal will make it unscathed through Congress.

On Wednesday, the heads of a dozen House committees urged the select homeland security panel to adopt several changes proposed by the standing committees last week.

Although the select committee is expected to ignore most of the changes-except for funding flexibility-Democrats hope to offer a range of amendments next week on the House floor to force the changes.

However, GOP leaders may seek to head off sweeping changes by approving a rule for debate that limits amendments.

GOP Conference Chairman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma said Wednesday that Republicans would craft a rule to help them meet their goal of approving the legislation in short order.

Asked if Republicans would permit a wide range of amendments, Watts responded, "The speaker will make that call."