The Senate Tuesday narrowly rejected efforts to strip special provisions from a homeland security bill and set the stage for passage of the biggest reorganization of the federal government in 55 years.
President Bush is poised to sign the measure, which brings under one roof 22 agencies and 170,000 employees, ranging from the Coast Guard to the Secret Service. It will provide a centralized “total information awareness” database for intelligence data about every U.S. citizen, and it will be the new home for the government’s immigration and border patrol agencies.
“When you wake up in the morning, you will have the authority you need to protect the security of the American people here at home,” Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi told Bush, who was aboard Air Force One Tuesday on his way to Prague for a NATO meeting.
“This is a very important piece of legislation. It is landmark in its scope,” Bush replied.
The Senate also was set to pass terrorism insurance legislation that will protect insurance carriers in the event of devastating losses caused by terrorist acts.
Congress has yet to provide financing for the new security department, however. Several senators said that is an obstacle the new Republican-controlled House and Senate will have to confront early next year.
The legislation creating the department would give airports up to an additional year to meet strict inspection standards for checked baggage. About 25 of the largest airports in the country had said they would not be able to meet the deadline.
A provision will make it lawful for pilots to carry weapons in the cockpit of commercial airplanes. It also would expand criminal penalties for computer cyber-attacks, particularly if they cause death or widespread economic disruption.
Devising the new department gives Bush a chance to change workplace rules and pay scales under the new measure without having to abide by civil service procedures.
To win approval of the new department, Bush put together a coalition of some of the staunchest advocates of small government to press for the biggest government reorganization since Congress and President Truman created the Defense Department in 1947.
“Actually, I guess there is a little paradox in it,” conceded Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who has often complained about the size of the federal bureaucracy. “Two things give me solace.
“One, we’re going to run this department better than we run the rest of the government, and we might learn something that could improve the rest of the government. And two, it is responding to a clear crisis where we had to respond.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who spearheaded the Democratic effort to create the department, voiced satisfaction with the bill even though he was unable to curb the personnel provisions that Bush sought.
“At least 90 percent of what I just voted for is exactly what I hoped would happen,” Lieberman said.
Democrats wanted to strike a handful of provisions in the bill protecting corporations that move their addresses offshore to avoid taxes. The provisions had been inserted in the last few days with little or no debate.
Among them were expanded liability exemptions for the makers of vaccines, eased restrictions on homeland security contracts with companies that avoid U.S. taxes by incorporating overseas, and selection criteria that appeared to give Texas A&M University a leg up for homeland security research grants.
Lott, the Senate Republican leader, avoided an embarrassment by assuring Republican moderates that he had an agreement with House Republican leaders to change those provisions in separate legislation next year. With that assurance, the amendment to remove the provisions died 52-47.
Late Tuesday the homeland security bill was passed 90-9.