WASHINGTON The U.S. Senate began debating legislation to bolster America's security on Wednesday with the White House threatening a veto because one part would extend union protection to 45,000 airport workers.
President George W. Bush's administration charged that the Democratic-backed provision to provide workers limited collective bargaining rights would curb needed flexibility at the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and diminish traveler safety.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and a chief sponsor of the overall bill, disagreed. He said he would urge Bush to support the provision as a way to bolster spirits among a largely demoralized workforce.
Noting there has been a high rate of turnover and injuries among the U.S. agency's baggage screeners, Lieberman said: "When you give employees a right to join an employee organization you are likely to improve their morale."
Lieberman pointed out that most federal workers already have such rights. He also said the proposal would not allow screeners to strike and would still permit TSA to assign them as needed in an emergency.
"We are going to make the case," Lieberman said.
The provision is an another effort by new Democratic-led Congress to advance a number of causes favored by the U.S. labor movement, such as raising the minimum wage and making it easier to unionize.
The overall bill would implement many of the stalled recommendations of the bipartisan commission created after the September 11 attacks.
The measure refines other recommendations and imposes new ones, such as the labor provision, and would let state and local governments share information with federal authorities, build better communication systems and provide grants to help high-risk areas prepare for disasters.
But White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said if the labor provision remains in the legislation, "the president's senior advisers would recommend he veto the bill."
Thirty-six Republican senators sent a letter to Bush on Tuesday saying they would provide the needed votes to sustain a veto in the 100-member Senate.