updated 5/10/2007 8:03:45 AM ET 2007-05-10T12:03:45

The Bush administration warned the House on Wednesday that legislation to authorize Homeland Security Department programs would face a veto if it gives the agency's 170,000 employees greater collective bargaining rights.

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The White House said eliminating the current personnel system would "diminish the department's ability to respond quickly to security threats and would negatively impact the security of the nation."

The bill, which approves $39.8 billion for Homeland Security programs in the budget year starting Oct. 1, passed by the House on Wednesday on a 296-126 vote, sending it to the Senate.

The power to hire and fire
The labor dispute was a major sticking point when Congress in decided in 2002 to consolidate 22 agencies into the new department after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The bill creating the agency easily passed the House, but it stalled in the Senate for months. Democrats balked at President Bush's insistence that he needed the power to hire, fire and shift workers without the civil service protections most federal workers have.

According to the final compromise, the agency has the ultimate say over labor rules if there is an impasse. The president was given the authority, in an emergency, to strip workers of bargaining rights.

The White House said eliminating this system would upset the balance "between the flexibility needed to defend against a ruthless enemy and the fairness needed to ensure employee rights."

Beth Moten, legislative and political director of the American Federation of Government Employees, said morale at the department is lower than in any other federal agency.

"It's time to restore the rights and protections of employees at the Department of Homeland Security so they can concentrate on the job they need to do, which is protecting all of us," she said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the bill would restore funds for grants "that allow those on the front lines to prepare and respond to threats or disasters" as well as streamline management, reform contracting practices and improve oversight at the agency.

But Republicans complained that the final version undercut several security programs, including one funding employee immigration checks at high risk sites and another allowing emergency communication grants to be used for first responder training.

At the end of the debate, Republicans succeeded in pushing through a measure allowing the Homeland Security secretary to authorize the Automated Targeting System that uses information already available on high-risk passengers entering the country. Civil rights and privacy groups have criticized the program, which is being used by the Customs and Border Patrol.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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