WASHINGTON (AP) -- A homeland security department without broad presidential powers over its workers would jeopardize the nation's ability to fight terrorism within U.S. borders, presidential aide Tom Ridge said Thursday.
"Americans expect the new department to cut through red tape so the very best people can be hired and placed in the right jobs with the right pay," Ridge, head of the Office of Homeland Security, told the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
"Americans expect the new Department of Homeland Security to be able to respond quickly to the new threat," he said.
Ridge's speech came as a persistent Senate impasse over worker rights raised concern about the homeland security bill's chances of passing Congress this year.
To be sure, President Bush continues to exhort lawmakers to move and Democrats who control the Senate keep setting up test votes to force action. But little progress has been made on the main dispute: Bush's demand for greater authority to hire, fire and deploy the agency's estimated 170,000 workers.
"I have the distinct impression that they (the GOP) don't want to finish the homeland security bill," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the assistant majority leader.
Republicans contend that Democrats have been unwilling to compromise enough because of the influence of labor unions, especially those representing government workers, over the Democratic Party.
"They have not been willing to choose between their friends, the big labor bosses, and national security," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
Democrats say it's Bush administration intransigence on the department's work force that is causing the delay.
"We support homeland security, but we want to make sure we protect the rights and freedoms of our American citizens," said Sen. John Breaux, D-La.
Still, lawmakers of both parties said they would continue trying to reach an agreement, even as the days in this congressional session dwindle and the Nov. 5 election looms.
"I think we need to do it before the election. But I think it can be done," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
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