Dem Mayors Mute on Opposition to Homeland Security

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:29pm EDT

( - Most of the nation's big city mayors have been hoping for a federal homeland security program to help them prepare and pay for responding to future terrorist threats.

That help came in the form of President Bush's proposal for the new Department of Homeland Security, which passed the Senate Tuesday evening by a 90-9 margin, with all nine votes against the department cast by Democrats or senators who caucus with the Democrats.

The final vote came after a full day of partisan wrangling and parliamentary efforts to derail the plan, with most of the Democratic opposition based on how a new homeland security department would treat unions, which are major donors to the Democratic Party.

But Democratic mayors in some of the nation's biggest cities voiced no criticism for senators from their home states who voted against the measure they wanted.

No Beefs in Beantown

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino applauded the Senate's approval of President Bush's Department of Homeland Security even though his state's political patriarch, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), voted against it.

Menino, a Democrat who doubles as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said such a department has been a top priority for mayors and local law enforcement officials since Sept. 11, but he spared Kennedy and other senators any criticism for their votes against the department.

"The more information that is made available to local officials, the better we can respond to potential threats," Menino said in a statement.

While information is valuable, Menino said the money for his and other cities that is expected to accompany the DHS is no less valuable.

"City budgets have been severely pinched by the combination of the weak economy and the need to invest in homeland security."

According to Menino, American cities "have spent more than $2.6 billion on homeland security efforts since 9/11 and they still have not received federal financial assistance for homeland security."

Kennedy's home state counterpart, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) voted in favor of the president's proposal.

Union considerations prompted Kennedy to vote against the homeland security bill, which gives the president greater latitude in personnel matters for department employees, with Kennedy claiming the provisions would give the president "authority to eliminate collective bargaining rights."

Don't Forget the Motor City

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was also happy with the bill's passage but would not comment on the vote of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who opposed the department in spite of the support it had from the mayor of the biggest city in Levin's state, according to Kilpatrick spokesman Jamaine Dickens.

"We are very unique here in the city of Detroit as the northern border for the nation," said Dickens. "We have a lot to protect here. 9/11 took a lot of cities by storm but probably none more than Detroit."

Kilpatrick, a Democrat, thinks the DHS can help the city's police department, according to Dickens, because since Sept.11, "our police department has been providing national security at the borders."

Detroit has two major border crossing with Windsor, Ontario, along with two other heavily trafficked border crossings; one at Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario, and another at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Like Kennedy, Levin said his opposition was based on how much power the union would have in the new department. And as was the case in Massachusetts, Levin's home-state colleague, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich), voted in favor of the measure.

Senate Republicans, in what many felt was a concession to Democrats worried about union power, added a provision to the bill requiring DHS to negotiate workplace changes with the employees union. But if no agreement is reached, the agency can make whatever changes it deems necessary.

Tens of thousands of union members currently work for agencies to be acquired by the DHS, and all will retain their union membership and benefits.

However, they will be subject to emergency provisions that allow short-term reassignments and immediate disciplinary actions, as is the case with all other federal emergency service workers.

The final version of the bill also gives the president the authority to waive certain union benefits for national security concerns, but only after he notifies Congress and waits 10 days.

Milwaukee's Best Not Impressed

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist was less enthusiastic about passage of the homeland security measure, saying the 90-9 Senate vote "fulfilled the desire of the Senate and the Congress to show the American people that they were doing something, but whether it's actually doing anything is a whole other question."

Unlike his counterparts in Detroit and Boston, Norquist doesn't think the DHS will help his city much. "We get vague warnings now, which is how the federal government basically indemnifies itself against liability," he said.

According to Norquist, "If anything bad happens [the federal government] can say, 'well, we warned ya'. But so far, all the warnings we get are, 'look out something might happen.'"

Norquist said he wasn't surprised that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) was among the nine senators who voted against creating the Department of Homeland Security because "he often votes against the tide."

Although Feingold voted against the plan, fellow Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Herb Kohl voted for it, something Norquist regarded as being "in the spirit of Wisconsin. We've always had at least one of our senators at any given time, acting as a maverick and speaking out as a Jeremiah."

Feingold said the legislation "potentially allows the federal government to maintain extensive files on each and every American without limitations," and claimed it would weaken safeguards against government access to individual e-mails and use of the Internet.

The Milwaukee mayor also said he thinks the DHS approval illustrates Washington's desire to show Americans that something is being done in the war against terrorism, but he wonders if more federal bureaucracy is the answer.

"I do think that the president and the Congress and federal officials sincerely do want to disrupt the ability of terrorists to hurt Americans. But I don't think this thing has a lot to do with that," Norquist said.

The agency will be the third largest in the federal government, with an estimated 170,000 employees, making it the biggest government reorganization since Congress and President Harry S. Truman created the Defense Department in 1947.

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