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Bush Urges Senate to Act on Homeland Security Plan
Filed at 2:01 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush stepped up pressure on Senate Democrats on Thursday to back down in a dispute over a proposed Department of Homeland Security, saying he needed the power to hire, fire and transfer workers to protect the nation against new terrorist attacks.

"We can't be constrained by work rules that prevent us from doing a better job," Bush told Hispanic leaders at a White House event in which he urged the Democrat-led Senate to approve the new homeland security department before adjourning for the year.

But key lawmakers and administration officials concede that they may be unable to hammer out a compromise in time. Lawmakers are expected to head home within a few weeks to get ready for the Nov. 5 elections.

There is broad support in Congress for creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security that would help protect the nation against another attack like the one on Sept. 11, 2001.

But Senate Democrats and Republicans, during five weeks of debate, have been unable to settle the dispute over labor rights for the department's 170,000 employees.

Bush says he needs the broad power to hire, fire and transfer workers in the proposed department to build an efficient operation. "We need flexibility to deal with emerging threats," he said.

But Democrats, long allies of organized labor, charge that the president is seeking an unwarranted rollback of collective bargaining and civil service protections.

"The Senate and some members of the Senate want to deny this president and future presidents the ... ability to protect our national security, the ability, in some cases, to suspend collective bargaining for the sake of national security," Bush said. "It doesn't make any sense, in a time of war, to take away that part of the presidential authority."

Democrats said Republicans may be holding up the measure so they can try to blame them for failing to create the department and make it an issue in next month's elections.

Republicans countered that Democrats have refused to give Bush an up-or-down vote on a version of the legislation that he could sign into law.

Bush on Thursday demanded that the Senate take action "before they go home," and made clear he would not back down on the labor issue.

"It's very important that the president have the capacity to determine that vital national security interests take priority over standard rules governing management and labor relations," Bush said. "I will not accept a rollback in the authority that other presidents have had, and the Senate must understand that."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said earlier this week that he would keep trying to resolve the dispute -- even if it requires a lame-duck Senate session after the elections.