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Unions crank up lobbying effort on homeland bill

The debate over creation of a Homeland Security Department has touched off a flurry of lobbying by business groups eager to ensure the free flow of trade through tightened borders, technology groups hawking data management and new security devices, defense contractors, health researchers and port authorities. But the most intense lobbying campaigns have come from two opposing corners-the White House and the federal employees' unions-and have focused on what kind of labor rights employees of the new department will enjoy.

The White House already has brought its formidable lobbying machine to bear on the House of Representatives, with particular interest in pulling lawmakers toward President Bush's original position on the so-called worker issues.

The House Government Reform Committee had different ideas: Two weeks ago it passed a bill containing employment language that the unions could support. The president's team began lobbying for changes to that committee's proposed civil service and collective bargaining language even before the Government Reform panel had finished marking up its bill, according to sources.

Next, the White House hustled to ensure the House Homeland Security Committee would rewrite the Government Reform Committee's work to reflect the president's wishes more closely. Once the measure came before that select Homeland Security panel last Friday, the panel's Republicans were ready to move language much closer to the White House position.

Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a select panel member and close ally of the White House, said the new language improved both the president's version and the Government Reform language. Portman said the employees would have their union representation, but flexibility was necessary in a wartime situation.

The unions cried foul, saying the new language gutted the Government Reform-passed bill. They said despite Portman's changes to the president's original approach, the new department's secretary still could take away employees' civil service protections for "national security" reasons.

"Everything that gives meaning to having a union is at the discretion of the secretary," one union official complained of the select committee's approach.

The federal employees' unions now will be working the House floor to undo those provisions. One union official said employees' groups have a target list of about 60 members, Democrats and Republicans.

"This list is more from memory than from actual voting records, because we haven't had a collective bargaining vote [in the House] in a long time," the source said.

"To some extent, it's the same [target] list we use on other votes-moderate to conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans," said AFL-CIO Political Director Bill Samuel, who also said the labor federation is cranking up its grass roots to support the federal employees. "There's an important principle at stake here that people not be denied their collective bargaining rights," Samuel said.

If they fail to change the bill on the House floor, the unions are counting on Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and others to ensure the Senate sends a so-called worker-friendly package to conference with the House.

"In the Senate, we just want to get through the Governmental Affairs markup [today] unscathed," said Beth Moten, legislative director of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The unions will be focusing on GOP senators on the Governmental Affairs Committee who "understand" federal employee issues, including Sens. Ted Stevens of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio, according to Moten.

The AFL-CIO and its member unions are adding their muscle to the two federal employee unions most affected by the legislation: the 600,000-strong AFGE, which represents 30,000 employees slated for transfer to the new department, and the National Treasury Employees Union, which would see about 12,000 of its 155,000 members shifted into the Homeland Security Department.

NTEU represents Customs Service workers, who calculate the tariffs on products passing through U.S. borders while also watching for terrorists. AFGE represents employees of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol, as well as workers in the Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

"It's hard for them to attack 'bureaucrats' when you look at the people being moved into the department-these are people on the front lines, not pencil pushers," said Maureen Gilman, NTEU's legislative director.

But the federal employee unions can use all the help they can get, as the AFGE fields just four lobbyists and the NTEU has two. At least a dozen affiliated unions, including the Teamsters and the United Steelworkers, took assignments earlier this week to help with the lobbying campaign, according to a union source who added, "They were proud to do it."