Labor language threatens antiterror bill

Updated: 2007-02-28 09:36

WASHINGTON - President Bush and his Senate allies will kill a Sept. 11 antiterror bill if Congress sends it to the White House with a provision to let airport screeners unionize, the White House and 36 Republicans said Tuesday.

President Bush pauses as he speaks before the ceremonial swearing-in of Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, not pictured, at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 27, 2007. [AP]
"As the legislation currently stands, the president's senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.

Senate Republicans swiftly backed up the threat with a pledge by more than enough senators to block any veto override attempt.

"If the final bill contains such a provision, forcing you to veto it, we pledge to sustain your veto," they wrote to the president. Sen. Jim DeMint , R-S.C., planned to offer an amendment to strip the provision from the bill.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that allowing screeners to unionize would impede the department's quick response to possible threats. Fast redeployment of screeners, such as in response to Hurricane Rita and the failed London plot to blow up airliners, cannot wait for negotiations, he said.

Chertoff said screeners are as much on the front lines in the war against terror as military troops.

"Marines don't collectively bargain over whether they're going to wind up, you know, being deployed in Anbar province or in Baghdad," Chertoff told reporters after a briefing with senators. "We can't negotiate over terms and conditions of work that goes to the heart of our ability to move rapidly in order to deal with the threats that are emerging."

Other federal employees have collective bargaining and whistle-blower protection rights.

Chertoff's reasoning, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, is "an insult to the hundreds of thousands of dedicated public safety officers with collective bargaining rights - from border patrol agents to firefighters to the Capitol Hill police," said John Gage, president of the federation.

The White House made its displeasure with the union provision clear before the House passed it as part of its Homeland Security bill. Sen. Susan Collins said Chertoff told her that a statement Thursday would include an explicit veto threat.

Casting the provision as a deal-killer would flex Bush's political muscle with the new, Democratic-led Congress on the old battleground of labor rights. It also could throw an obstacle into talks over how to debate and pass the recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission.

For now, senators are eager to follow the House and pass a bill enacting the commission's recommendations to tighten the nation's security. The House bill also includes a provision that would let TSA screeners bargain collectively.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had reached a tentative agreement Tuesday to conduct the debate over the next 10 days without the distraction of Iraq.

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