Sharply divided Congress plans show of unity in N.Y.


WASHINGTON - In a ceremonial session of Congress, Democrats and Republicans will stand united in New York today to memorialize Sept. 11. Yet as they mark the occasion, the two parties are more divided than ever over the creation of a Homeland Security Department.

The heart-rending speeches and solemn expressions of solidarity that are expected to dominate today's events at Federal Hall and Ground Zero will stand in contrast with the partisan rancor that erupted in the Senate this week as debate began on the homeland security bill.

With the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaching, Congress and the president are locked in a pitched battle over workplace rights for the roughly 170,000 employees who would staff the new department.

It has taken on the tone of a post-Sept. 11 patriotism contest, with each party accusing the other of undermining basic American values.

Lawmakers had said they wanted to have the new department in place by the first anniversary of Sept. 11. But it is clear that Congress will not finish the measure - a cornerstone of its anti-terrorism agenda - until this fall.

Senators might find themselves voting on the politically charged workplace issue just days after the somber anniversary.

Historic N.Y. site

About 240 lawmakers - 40 senators and more than 200 House members - are taking part today in the ceremonial session.

They will meet in Federal Hall, where the first Congress was held in 1789, George Washington took the presidential oath of office and the Bill of Rights was signed.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who secured a $1 million grant from the nonpartisan Annenberg Foundation to fund the session, will serve as host at a lunch for lawmakers.

The events will end with an afternoon wreath-laying ceremony at Ground Zero.

But back on Capitol Hill, the bitterness ratcheted up this week. The White House has threatened to veto the Democratic version of the homeland security bill, in large part because it fails to give Bush the flexibility he seeks.

The president wants to be able to remove employees from collective bargaining agreements when national security is involved.

Flanked by dozens of federal workers, many of them her constituents, at a news conference Wednesday, Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski criticized the White House for its stance on the bill and saluted the job that firefighters and federal employees did when they arrived at Ground Zero on Sept. 11.

"When they went, they went as Americans," Mikulski said to hoots and hollers from a union crowd, which included employees who helped in Sept. 11 rescue efforts. "They belonged to a union called the United States of America!"

'Very unfortunate'

Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who is leading Republican efforts to shape the bill, called the Democratic tactics "very, very unfortunate and unfair."

"I think it's unfortunate that they bring in Sept. 11 employees to kind of use them in this debate," Thompson said.

The Democratic bill, sponsored by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, does not give President Bush the latitude he wants to hire, fire and adjust pay scales in the new department and to waive union rights if he thinks national security is at stake.

"To provide the best security for America," White House officials said in a statement, the administration "must also have the flexibility to develop improved and sensible rules in areas relating to the hiring, compensation, assignment and discipline of employees."

Lieberman's bill would allow the president to exclude individual employees from union agreements for the sake of national security - but only after the president met strict requirements.

"The enemy here is Osama bin Laden, not Bobby Harnage," Lieberman said, referring to the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing 600,000 federal workers.

"There are a group of partisan, ideologically anti-worker advisers who have steered the president of the United States in the wrong direction.

"Every day that goes by without this department is a day of danger for the people of the United States of America."

Harnage will not attend today's ceremonies.

Called union busting

Bush is "trying to wrap himself in the flag and then turn around and say that union members are a threat to national security," Harnage said. "It's nothing in the world but union busting, any way you want to look at it."

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and the Senate's recognized historian, will also be staying in Washington.

"I think the Congress ought to be here, working," said Byrd, who has expressed grave concerns about a homeland security department and is largely responsible for slowing its progress through the Senate.

"I have done everything I can do in recognition of the horror, the suffering, the sacrifices that were made. There's not anything that I can do by going up there," said Byrd.

Republicans argue that labor leaders and Democrats who insist on preserving labor protections within the agency would tie the president's hands when he needs flexibility to counter domestic threats.

"It is not a question of being anti-union; it's a question of having concerns which override collective bargaining," said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican.

House passed bill

In late July, the Republican-led House passed its version of the homeland security bill, which mirrors Bush's plan.

Next week, Thompson plans to offer a provision to allow the president to use authority he already has to remove, for national security reasons, whole offices in the department from collective bargaining deals.

Republicans are also likely to propose making it easier to hire and fire workers and modify pay scales.

The partisan differences go beyond labor concerns. White House officials say the bill does not give the administration enough authority over some things - such as structuring the department and shifting money among its offices - while granting Congress too much authority on others.

They object, for example, to a provision in Lieberman's bill to create an anti-terrorism office in the White House, subject to congressional oversight.

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