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Heated Congressional Debate Kills Progress on Homeland Security Bill

By Nick Anderson

Once considered almost unstoppable, a sweeping proposal to reshape the federal government to help fend off terrorism has lost its aura of inevitability and could die this year amid partisan warfare in Congress.

On Thursday, senior Senate Democrats and Republicans again clashed publicly over remaining disputes in legislation that would create a department of homeland security.

The continuing impasse centers on labor and personnel issues within the proposed agency, with Republicans wanting more power for management and Democrats wanting to preserve union rights.

As a result, a bill once embraced by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders is stuck in limbo, more than six weeks after the Senate began to debate it and more than four months after President Bush proposed it.

The bill would shift all or part of 22 federal agencies into one Cabinet superagency with roughly 170,000 employees, responsible for, among many functions, securing airports, seaports and borders. Backers say the reorganization, which would be the most significant since the modern Defense Department was launched more than 50 years ago, would help focus the government’s now-splintered response to threats exposed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But with little more than two weeks left before the Nov. 5 elections and Republicans and Democrats fighting for control of Congress, chances are fading that the Senate will pass the bill before the vote.

Some advocates hold out hope for passage in a lame-duck session, but that too is iffy. Further talks on a possible compromise still are likely to prove difficult. And both parties will be looking ahead to the start of the next Congress in January.

Finger-pointing has begun already on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are anxious to dodge blame for failing to act on homeland security after last year’s terrorist attacks awakened the public to vulnerabilities.

In the House, which passed its version of a homeland security bill in late July, 295-132, Republican leaders taunt their Senate counterparts for failing to do the same. “Al-Qaida doesn’t have a Senate,” said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

Within the Senate, each party accuses the other of stifling compromise.

But most Democrats, joined by a breakaway Republican, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, have lined up behind an alternative. It would force the president to make certain findings about the terror-fighting role of employees within the department before he could use his national security authority to dissolve collective bargaining agreements.