The Senate defeated an attempt by Democrats to kill what they called special interests measures in a homeland security bill, bringing a lame-duck Congress close to granting President Bush's demand for a new Cabinet agency to protect Americans from terrorists.
The Senate voted 52-47 to reject an amendment that would have removed from the bill seven provisions that Democrats said were favors to friends of Republicans. The president and his key advisers actively lobbied wavering senators to defeat the amendment, saying its approval could doom passage of the bill this year.
With the amendment out of the way, the Senate was set to finish work on the legislation Tuesday, ending five months of contentious debate on how to carry out the most monumental reorganization of the federal government in over half a century.
The House last week provisionally finished its work for the year, and now can approve minor technical changes in the Senate version without calling lawmakers back to Washington.
"The terrorists are not going to wait for a process that goes on days, weeks or months,'' said Senate GOP Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. "...We need to get this done and we need to do it now.''
Three Democrats voted with the president to defeat the amendment, including Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who faces a tough run-off election next month in her bid for a second term, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Zell Miller of Georgia.
John McCain of Arizona was the only Republican to side with the Democrats. The two independents spit their vote, with Vermont's James Jeffords voting with the Democrats and Minnesota's Dean Barkley with the Republicans.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was in Paris for a fashion tribute to Jacqueline Kennedy, and missed the vote.
Had the Democratic amendment prevailed, House leaders would have had to decide whether to accept that version or initiate new negotiations.
Most Democrats, while supporting the homeland security bill, balked at what they said were last-minute inclusions of special interest favors unrelated to the nation's security.
"It's the Senate's last chance to show the American people that we are serious about placing some controls on this massive new bureaucracy,'' said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., leading opponent of the legislation.
The most controversial provision would have protected pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits over the side effects of vaccines they create. The protections would have been retroactive to lawsuits already in court. Democrats said that among the lawsuits that would have been thrown out were those involving claims that mercury-based preservatives used in vaccines cause autism in children.
The bill also includes liability protections for makers of airport screening equipment and airport security firms and weakens an amendment offered by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., that would have barred companies that set up offshore tax havens from getting federal homeland security contracts.
Bush proposed the new department last June, saying the agency that will combine 170,000 federal workers from 22 existing agencies was needed to provide a united front against the terrorist threat to the nation. It would be the biggest federal government reorganization since Harry Truman created the Defense Department in 1947.
The House approved the legislation by a wide margin in July, but Senate debate stalled for months, first over the labor rights of employees in the new agency and now, over special interest provisions.
The Senate, trying to wrap up its work for the year, could also vote Tuesday on a bill that would have the government cover up to $90 billion annually in insurance claims from any future terrorist attacks.
The terrorism insurance bill has been one of the president's top priorities for more than a year. He says many new construction projects have been slowed because builders must pay exorbitant terrorism insurance premiums or find that such insurance is unavailable.
Under the bill, approved by the House last week, for the next three years taxpayers would cover up to 90 percent of insured losses from major attacks, with the insurance industry covering up to the first $15 billion in annual claims.
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