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Senator to press for civil service protections despite veto threat

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Wednesday strongly reaffirmed his commitment to civil service protections in the new Homeland Security Department and expressed doubt that President Bush would veto the legislation.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Wednesday strongly reaffirmed his commitment to civil service protections in the new Homeland Security Department and expressed doubt that President Bush would veto the legislation over what he called "a peripheral issue at best."

While saying he was open to further discussions, Lieberman said of the veto threat: "I just don't believe it. I think it's tactical … I think we're absolutely right [and we] won't do anything to alter our fundamental position."

But a Bush administration official countered that Senate Democrats needed to show "some flexibility on the [employee] flexibility issue." The official added: "I think the president has laid out some serious concerns with the [Senate] bill. Whatever bill reaches his desk has to have flexibility. He's been very clear on what kind of bill he would sign."

The president has sought to give the new department's secretary managerial flexibility on issues such as job assignments, pay rates and whether employees would be covered by collective bargaining agreements. The House version of the legislation, passed last week over the objections of 120 Democrats and 10 Republicans, largely tracks the president's position on labor issues.

Lieberman and Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, Wednesday appeared at an event alongside a Border Patrol agent and an Arlington, Va., firefighter who helped respond to the Pentagon attack, both of whom are union members.

"Union rights are not the problem here," Lieberman said, calling the administration's position "an insult to workers" and "a partisan sideshow."

Lieberman said his bill included "new flexibility" for managers that had been hammered out in negotiations with the federal employee unions. He noted that the new department's secretary could "immediately" suspend employees for national security reasons on a case-by-case basis.

"We reject the idea that the secretary needs complete autonomy over personnel decisions," Akaka added.

In a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, White House Homeland Security Office Director Tom Ridge Wednesday underscored the Bush administration's commitment to getting a bill that would provide managerial flexibility. Ridge said while Lieberman claimed that 90 percent of the Democrats' bill tracks the White House proposal, the management flexibility issues are key.

He said Bush opposes proposals that "don't give the secretary the ability to reorganize, don't give managerial flexibility, don't give procurement flexibility." Ridge also said that the administration does not expect to prevail initially over Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., on the issue of funding flexibility for the new department-even though he said that it is wrong for Congress to "micromanage" the department.

"I don't think we are going to win in the Senate," Ridge said, but "maybe we can do something after" in a conference committee. Ridge also said he was disappointed when the Senate postponed action on the homeland security bill this week. But he said the deadline of enacting the bill by Sept. 11 was "one of the most ambitious goals I ever heard." Ridge said he hopes to get the bill done by the end of the year.