Washington A divided House committee voted Friday to create the giant Homeland Security Department sought by President Bush, but not before a contentious debate that led to a one-year extension of a looming deadline for airports to begin screening airline bags for explosives.
The 5-4 vote for the overall Republican-sponsored bill by the House Select Committee on Homeland Security came along strict party lines, fracturing the veneer of bipartisanship that has previously surrounded the issue.
Democrats said they were opposed because of the airline baggage issue and for other reasons, most notably a dispute over whether the new department's chief should have greater flexibility over its work force. Democrats also disagreed with language exempting certain security-related products from lawsuits.
"I believe this product is still flawed," said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Tex.
But House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Tex., accused Democrats of playing politics with legislation that should have near-unanimous support. "It's too bad that this is now becoming partisan," he said.
On baggage screening, the committee reversed an earlier decision for no deadline postponement by voting 6-3 with Republican Reps. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and Deborah Pryce of Ohio switching their votes for an amendment to delay the current Dec. 31 deadline until Dec. 31, 2003.
Watts said he was persuaded by the argument made by Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Tex., that numerous airports would be unable to install the necessary machinery by the deadline Congress set last fall.
"It's just crazy to think that they can comply," Watts said. "I think it will put some common sense into the equation."
Democrats decried the move by Republicans, saying the delay would put passengers in danger.
"It's sad for all of those in the flying public who will have no protection," said Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., author of the amendment upholding the earlier deadline. "I think it is a horrendous mistake, and I regret the powers that be have prevailed upon members of the committee to change their votes."
The issue is far from settled, however. The bill goes to the House floor next week and then to the Democratic-led Senate.
The overall measure would give Bush most of the power and agencies he sought in a new Cabinet agency. The department would have 170,000 employees and a $38 billion annual budget and serve as the new home of the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Customs Service, Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the just-created Transportation Security Administration.
Bush "believes the outcome will be what he has asked for" once Congress finishes the bill, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Armey said he included the airline baggage issue in his legislation to allow time for better technology to be developed and because so many airports, including those in Denver, Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta, have indicated they cannot meet the Dec. 31 deadline.