The White House Monday rejected recommendations by congressional Democrats and a key House panel to maintain current civil service laws in its newly created Homeland Security Department, heightening tensions over a provision that has quickly emerged as a key point of contention.
At a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee Monday, White House Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the Bush administration opposes an amendment approved last week by the Government Reform Committee that would allow the tens of thousands of federal employees in the new department to join labor unions and engage in collective bargaining.
The amendment-offered by Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md., and approved on a 21-19 vote-would afford that right to employees of the new department.
On Monday, Ridge testified that the Morella amendment "would be a step in the wrong direction." Rather, Ridge insisted that the secretary of the new department be given "flexibility" to manage in a way that helps the department combat terrorism.
The White House plan calls for a rulemaking process to establish a civil service procedure that "is at once capable of facilitating the high-level of performance necessary to navigate the largely uncharted territory of this new department while remaining accountable to the public, to Congress and to the new department's employees."
That process, Ridge said, would allow the department to draw from "the best practices of the public and private sectors."
Still, the provision has been the focus of debate during two days of hearings in the House Homeland Security Committee.
The five Republicans on the panel firmly support the administration while the four Democrats have spent much of their time criticizing the White House stand.
Creating the new department "is not a chance to dismantle civil service laws," Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost of Texas said at Monday's session with Ridge.
A Republican leadership aide said Monday that Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, is likely to draft legislation that includes the administration's proposal, shedding the Morella amendment.
A Morella spokesman said she was anticipating select committee opposition to her language.
"Rep. Morella is working with the Senate to ensure that her version of the language is included in the final product," the spokesman said.
Union officials also expect the Bush administration and GOP members of the Homeland Security Committee to rewrite the provisions behind closed doors.
"They were furious with us-and they wanted to discuss how to reverse it even before [the Government Reform Committee] had its final vote" on the legislative package, one source said.
A trio of GOP lawmakers-Morella and Reps. John McHugh and Benjamin Gilman of New York-resisted pressure from Bush administration lobbyists throughout Thursday's markup to drop the civil service protections, sources said.
"McHugh, Gilman and Morella were heroic," said a labor source.
Federal employee groups considered the Government Reform bill a "major victory."
Another source close to the federal employees' unions said that if the select committee changes the civil service language, supporters would have several opportunities to fight such a move.
The source suggested the Senate would take a firm line in protecting federal employees' rights, and said that if there is an open rule for debate on the House floor, it might be possible to put together a majority in support of the Government Reform panel's language.
"That's not beyond the realm of possibility-we got some Republican votes in committee and wouldn't need that many on the floor," the source said.
On the other hand, the source said, if the select committee opts for a middle ground between the president's proposal and the Government Reform language, the federal unions might save their powder for the Senate and the eventual conference committee.