Washington President Bush sternly warned Congress on Friday against passing a bill that limits the personnel and budgetary powers of the head of a new Department of Homeland Security, giving the clearest indication yet that he would veto a measure now before the Senate.
"A time of war is the wrong time to weaken the president's ability to protect the American people," Bush told a White House audience that included governors, mayors, firefighters, police and lawmakers.
Bush spoke as legislation to great the giant new agency was moving quickly through Congress.
The House was on track Friday to pass its version of the legislation combining 22 federal entities and 170,000 employees under a single umbrella, less than two months after Bush proposed it.
And a key Senate committee has approved its version. It was the Democratic-sponsored Senate version that has drawn Bush's opposition.
Bush indicated he would veto the legislation, if passed in the Senate version, because it doesn't exempt the proposed agency from civil-service and budget rules. Democrats and organized labor have strongly opposed Bush's position, saying it would violate workers' rights.
"I reject that as strongly as I can state it," Bush said of the suggestion that his position was anti-labor.
"The bill doesn't have enough managerial flexibility as far as I'm concerned," he told an audience that included Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the sponsor of the Senate version.
As Lieberman sat expressionless, Bush said, "I appreciate the work of Sen. Lieberman. He's working hard." Bush promised to work with both parties in Congress on a version that he could sign.
Bush has indicated general support for the bill being debated on Friday by the House. But he made clear his distaste for the Senate bill, which has not yet been taken up by the full Senate.
"I'm not going to accept legislation that limits or weakens the president's well-established authorities authorities to exempt parts of government from parts of federal labor-management relations statutes when it serves our national interest."
"Every president since Jimmy Carter has used this statutory authority," Bush said.
"As Congress debates the issue of how to set up this department, I'm confident they're going to look to me to say, 'Well is it being done right?' after they've got the bill passed. And, therefore, it's important we have the managerial flexibility to get the job done right," he said.
"We can't be micromanaged," he asserted.
Few on Capitol Hill believe Bush will not get his new department, one way or another, before Congress adjourns this fall.
"There are differences, but I would say they are at the margins," Lieberman had said Thursday. "This bill gives the president about 90 percent of what he asked for."
And Bush himself told his audience: "This administration is working with Congress to forge a bipartisan bill. I believe we're making good progress. And, being a modest guy, I'm willing to recognize a good idea even if it comes from Congress."
Bush claims the personnel and management flexibility he seeks is vital to move quickly as new terrorist threats emerge. preventing terrorist attacks should not be shackled by burdensome rules.
As part of its intensifying campaign to pre-empt a Senate vote on the Democratic-sponsored measure, the White House dispatched a group of sympathetic governors and state officials to press the president's case at a news conference outside the White House.
Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, a Republican, said he fully supported Bush's position. "I encourage Congress to give the president as much flexibility as possible."
Maine Gov. Angus King, a political independent, denied that Bush was trying to undercut labor protections or whistleblower rights. "He's looking for the flexibility to move people around in a wartime footing," King said. "This is really a question of the highest level of national security."
The House, meanwhile, debated amendments to its bill into the early hours of Friday. GOP leaders said a final vote was expected later in the day, even as Democrats sought changes in areas such as the personnel flexibility, freedom of information exemptions, lawsuit liability and a delay in a deadline for airports to screen all baggage for explosives.+
The House and Senate bills generally mirror Bush's proposals to transfer such agencies as the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Border Patrol, Customs Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the just-created Transportation Security Administration into the new department.
On Thursday, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee approved its bill by a 12-5 vote, leaving aside Bush's demand for personnel flexibility. Democrats contend that providing such power to the president would undermine civil service benefits and protections and jeopardize collective bargaining rights.
Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said the president's plan amounts to "a blank check to hire, fire, sanction, whatever, individual employees."
Republicans say a department dedicated to tracking a shadowy enemy and preventing terrorist attacks should not be shackled by burdensome rules.
"We're creating more responsibilities and fewer tools to deal with those responsibilities and that's a recipe for failure," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.