- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 25, 2002

The Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved the establishment of a 10-member commission with subpoena powers to investigate whether breakdowns in U.S. intelligence and security made the nation vulnerable to the September 11 attacks.

The amendment to the pending homeland security bill was approved in a 90-8 vote.

"A thorough, nonpartisan investigation would provide an informed basis for the current administration and the Congress to take all necessary measures to ensure that our country is prepared to meet the challenges of this age of terrorism," said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and one of the most vocal supporters of the commission.

Several key senators, including Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, and Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had hoped the House and Senate intelligence committees could produce a comprehensive investigation.

In July, the House approved a commission with a narrower scope.

But House proponents say they like the Senate proposal, and the Bush administration now supports a commission but will seek a more limited scope to the investigation.

Senators have reached a new stalemate over the president's proposal to transfer two dozen agencies and 170,000 federal workers into a new Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Bush has asked for flexibility in hiring and firing workers in the new department, and for a national security waiver to suspend collective-bargaining rights. Democrats have balked, arguing the workers shouldn't suffer for being transferred to the new department.

Democratic leaders want to offer an amendment requiring the president to certify a national security need before suspending collective-bargaining rights, but the White House says the conditions for certification are impossible to meet.

Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, and Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, are demanding an up-or-down vote on their proposal, backed by the White House, to grant the president flexibility.

"Do we owe it to the president of the United States to have an up-or-down vote on the proposal he believes has the best chance of saving lives?" Mr. Gramm said.

Democrats say their counterproposal is a way to break the stalemate.

"What we have offered is an effort to get something that can pass the United States Senate and get us to conference," said Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat and a chief sponsor of the Democrats' new amendment.

Whichever proposal comes up first probably would receive a majority of votes, so each side is angling for an up-or-down vote on its own plan. Republicans have the support of one Democrat, Mr. Miller, but the Democratic amendment is supported by Sen. Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island Republican.

Republicans yesterday suggested scrapping the bill this year and trying again next year.

"I don't know if the Senate's going to be able to produce a product," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican. He added that a failure to reach an agreement would be "a tragedy."

The Senate yesterday morning defeated an amendment by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, that would have required Congress to approve individual agencies as they were added to the Homeland Security Department. The outline and leadership of the new department would be formed as the president wants, but he would have to come back to Congress three times in the first year with plans for transferring new sets of agencies.

"Congress will be there, looking over the shoulder of the agencies, so to speak looking over the shoulder of the administration," Mr. Byrd said.

A bipartisan majority of senators turned back that proposal in a 70-28 vote, with 21 Democrats joining all 49 Republicans in opposing Mr. Byrd.

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