White House may hold edge in homeland security standoff

Analysts say the White House may have a slight advantage in the partisan standoff over civil service protections for workers in the proposed Department of Homeland Security.

With the anniversary of the September 11 attacks fast approaching, President Bush's proposed Homeland Security Department has bogged down because of a partisan standoff over what rights the department's employees will have.

Wielding a veto threat, Bush says that the new Cabinet secretary needs "flexibility" to reward good work and punish bad. Congressional Democrats say that Bush is just beating up on unions. But at this point, analysts say that the White House is in a stronger position to chalk up a win.

"The Democrats have more to lose in this whole debate, because it's their constituencies that are at issue here, particularly on the issue of workers' rights," said Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist.

Democrats face a difficult choice: Either they give ground on civil service protections for the new department's employees and betray a powerful constituency-unions-or they risk the public appearance of holding up a major anti-terrorism bill for political purposes. The Senate began considering legislation creating the department on September 3, and the longer the debate extends past September 11, the more pressure the chamber's Democratic majority will feel to pass a bill. The backlog of other legislative business that must be completed by the November elections also adds to the pressure.

In July, the Republican-controlled House largely gave Bush what he wants when it approved its version of the legislation, which would merge 22 federal agencies into a Homeland Security Department that handles border security; bio-, chemical, and nuclear terrorism; intelligence analysis; and emergency response. But as Congress returned to Washington from its summer recess, the White House and Senate Democrats positioned themselves for a bruising fight.

At a Labor Day rally, Bush sternly warned the Senate to "get it right." "Anybody who wants to join a union can do so" and still be part of the new department, Bush said. "But I need the flexibility to ... protect the people." The president followed up with several meetings with Republican and Democratic senators to press them to accept his proposals.

Senate Democrats returned the favor on September 4 by holding a press conference featuring more than 100 unionized federal workers. "The president of the United States has lost focus here," said Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. "The focus should be on homeland security, not on the rights of federal workers. The enemy here is Osama bin Laden, not Bobby Harnage," the president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Lieberman also accused Bush of listening to "partisan, anti-worker advisers."

Republicans are drawing a non-negotiable line on the civil service issue, primarily because they can, said congressional analyst Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Hudson Institute. "This is probably a trivial position that the White House didn't need, but the politics works to their benefit," Wittmann said. "I daresay, there's no one Republican constituency that gives one whit about this issue." So the battle becomes a no-lose proposition for Republicans: Either they strike a blow against the Democrats or they don't, and Bush still claims credit for whatever version of the bill he ultimately signs.

The debate is complicated because both parties profess to want similar things-allowing federal employees who belong to unions to maintain their rights when they are merged into the new department, yet without requiring the Cabinet secretary to spend endless hours negotiating over contracts. The question is: How do you get there, and to what degree do union collective bargaining rights hinder those goals? The department is slated to employ 170,000 workers, a third of whom are currently unionized.

Republicans such as Sen. Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., his party's point man on the legislation in the Senate, say that collective bargaining rules are a huge hindrance because they require protracted negotiations over everything from uniform design to whether an outside smoking area should be lighted. "It's a recipe for disaster to pull all these things together [into a new department] and not come up with a new approach to management," Thompson, the ranking member on the Governmental Affairs Committee, said in an interview.

The White House wants to establish a process for designing the department's personnel system, rather than specifying what it wants the system to look like. Under the administration's proposal, federal workers would bring their current protections to the new department, but the new secretary would meet with the Office of Personnel Management and the unions' collective bargaining units to establish a new set of rules. Waiving employee rights, such as collective bargaining and pay scales, would be on the table.

Senate Democrats, led by Lieberman, say that current civil service law is more flexible than Republicans make it out to be. Plus, they note that Lieberman's Homeland Security Department bill would loosen restrictions on hiring and retirement incentives, and it allows the secretary to come back six months and then a year later to make a case for relaxing civil service rules.

Lieberman has repeatedly tried to sideline the civil service issue, but even he recognizes the limitations of that strategy. "Unfortunately, the White House is able to frame the debate, given their superior resources and their larger platform-their bully pulpit," said Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips. "That's been the dilemma."

Senate Republicans are taking advantage of the upper hand that the White House offers them by warning Democrats that they press this issue at their political peril. "The stakes are too high for a handful of people to make this [civil service issue] a litmus test," Thompson said. "I don't think it would serve their purposes to do that. It's a relatively minor consideration. They're treating this president and this new department with suspicion and reservation that they have not shown for other presidents."

During August, the AFL-CIO turned up the pressure on congressional Democrats by urging its state organizations and local members to oppose the White House effort to weaken worker protections in Lieberman's bill. The federation's strategy is to cast the White House's plans for Homeland Security Department workers as a major step in an overall effort to erode workers' rights.

"I think what's gotten people's attention is not just the effect on federal workers, but that it's a pattern of anti-union behavior by this administration," said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's legislative director, in an interview. This strategy may be great for rallying the troops, but it also raises the cost for Democrats if they lose the battle.

Lieberman's political predicament is particularly difficult. He continues to flirt with a presidential bid, but his centrist leanings have often rubbed unions the wrong way. "He's presumably running for president and doesn't want to upset a key Democratic constituency-organized labor," Wittmann said. "He already starts out with a bit of a difficulty with labor and doesn't want to let them down. That's why I think the White House was enamored of this idea" of taking on Lieberman over the issue.

Some moderate Senate Republicans are also in a bind over the labor issue. Those up for re-election, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, "will face a lot of crosscurrents," noted West of Brown University. When the Governmental Affairs Committee considered the Homeland Security legislation, Collins supported a Republican-sponsored amendment to pare back workers' rights. But she was one of only three committee Republicans who bucked their party and voted for the overall bill. The other two were Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Ted Stevens of Alaska. These three senators are among the swing votes to watch as the full Senate considers the legislation.

Of course, even if the Senate approves Lieberman's bill without major amendments, both parties will have to compromise when the bill goes to a House-Senate conference committee. That's still a win for Republicans, argues Wittmann, because any compromise will pull the Senate bill toward the House's position, which mirrors the president's.

There is room for compromise, if members choose to entertain it. The Senior Executives Association, which represents about 7,000 top-level federal employees, has recommended that employees transferred to the new department be allowed to keep their current civil service protections for a year and then renegotiate them with the new department. Another possibility, said Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, would be to have a sliding scale of protections based on how crucial the position is to national security; posts most central to security would have the least civil service protections.

Other issues will also stoke partisan debate in the Senate. On the managerial front, Republicans are likely to try to give the new Cabinet secretary the authority to move both money and programs. The White House's proposal allows the secretary to move up to 5 percent of the budgets of the 20-some agencies being folded into the department during the first two years. Lieberman has criticized this proposal as an effort to circumvent Congress, and he said it would create a $2 billion "slush fund" for the new secretary. The House bill allows 2 percent to be moved during the first two years.

In addition, the president's proposal would give the secretary authority to reorganize agencies within the new department, so long as he gave Congress 90 days notice. Lieberman and many other Democrats say that such authority is an unreasonable usurpation of congressional authority.

Another sticking point will be structuring the department's intelligence wing. The president's proposal and the House's bill establish one undersecretary to oversee both intelligence and the protection of "critical infrastructure," such as bridges. The Senate bill establishes a separate undersecretary for intelligence, and the legislation would give the new secretary broader access to raw intelligence data.

The Senate floor debate will also venture into the fight over the White House's homeland security role. The Senate bill establishes at the White House a National Office for Combating Terrorism, which is much more expansive than the current Office of Homeland Security, and would require its head to testify before Congress-something the administration still strongly resists as an infringement on the president's executive privilege.