WASHINGTON – The Senate gave overwhelming final approval Tuesday to the Homeland Security Act, ending five months of debate on the largest government overhaul in more than 50 years.
The bill passed on a 90-9 vote. The House passed identical legislation last Wednesday and President Bush is expected to sign the measure into law early next week.
Maryland’s Democratic senators split on the bill, with Sen. Barbara Mikulski voting for it and Sen. Paul Sarbanes voting against the measure that would merge about 170,000 employees from 22 agencies into one Cabinet-level department.
Mikulski spokeswoman Amy Hagovsky said that while the senator was upset that the bill gives the secretary of homeland security the authority to strip collective bargaining rights from employees, it was time to vote for the “greater good.”
“She sits on the Intelligence Committee and knows the concerns of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and emergency responders and feels it’s more important to look at the bigger picture and create a department,” Hagovsky said.
Sarbanes could not be reached to comment on his vote Tuesday evening.
Even before passage, area lawmakers were actively promoting their districts as a potential home to the new department.
Rep. Constance Morella, R-Bethesda, has pushed to house the new department at the former Naval Surface Warfare Center, a 700-acre facility in White Oak that will soon be home to as many as 6,000 Food and Drug Administration employees.
“White Oak is an option and a very good one we would advocate for,” Morella aide Jordie Hannum said. “By having a major department in Montgomery County, it’s going to have an extremely positive economic impact.”
Hannum said Morella plans to continue pushing for the White Oak site even after she relinquishes her seat to Democrat Chris Van Hollen early next year.
But D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, citing an executive order that requires all Cabinet-level agencies be in Washington, is pushing for the Department of Homeland Security to be located at the 180-acre St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Norton said that taking “a half a dozen agencies out of town would collapse the District.”
She noted that the bill calls for an officer in the new agency whose only job will be coordinating regional response plans with the D.C. mayor and the governors of Maryland and Virginia. The provision was necessary because of the large federal presence in all three areas, she said.
Norton was not pleased that federal workers face the loss of their union rights in the new department.
“I grieve that federal workers are now at the mercy of the president,” Norton said. “That is the bad news.”
One of the major sticking points in the bill was the question of union rights for the agency’s employees. The bill passed Tuesday would let unions voice objections to personnel decisions for up to 60 days, but the secretary could ultimately implement any personnel changes if no agreement is reached.
The bill also lets the president strip collective bargaining rights from current union members if their responsibilities change to include work directly related to intelligence, counterintelligence or terrorism investigation. But he could strip those rights from any worker in the new department if he notifies Congress 10 days beforehand.
Diane Witiak, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, said Congress “doesn’t really know what they’re voting on.”
“The bottom line is, this falls on the rank and file of federal employees to protect the nation,” Witiak said. “If they turn a blind eye to these people who know best how to serve their country . . . they’re really going to hamper the ability of the department to function well.”
But lawmakers are ready to move on, said a spokesman for House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who urged the Senate earlier this week to pass the bill and “quit the shenanigans.”
“We’re glad we didn’t have to start from scratch with a new Senate,” said Jonathan Grella, the spokesman. “We expect this thing will get taken care of in short order.”
Despite union opposition to the bill, Witiak said she hopes the department will work with unions to establish the best organization and practices for the new agency.
“The department needs to ask federal employees, talk to them,” she said. “When the rhetoric dies down, let’s work together. Let them and their union representatives have a seat at the table to develop the best department for the American people.”