WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- As a bill to create a new Homeland Security Department inched closer to congressional approval Friday, Senate Democrats made a last-ditch effort to remove a handful of controversial provisions that were buried in the bill at the eleventh hour.
In the 484-page legislation to create a new, Cabinet-level security agency are liability protections for pharmaceutical companies making vaccine additives, special waivers for off-shore corporations wishing contracts with the new department, and a pricey new research center Democrats allege is earmarked for Texas A & M University.
The bill also includes sweeping liability protections for airport screening companies and other companies making anti-terrorism products. Another provision will allow the new agency to hold meetings with corporations that will be closed to public oversight, Democratic aides say.
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., defended some of the controversial liability provisions Friday, saying they aided national security. Democratic leaders disagreed.
"If this is a homeland security bill, let's keep it homeland security related and let's take out all this terrible special interest legislation that has nothing to do with homeland security," said Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Sens. Daschle and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., introduced an amendment to remove the provisions. If it passes, the House of Representatives would have to return from recess to vote again on the bill, delaying final passage.
The Homeland Security legislation will create a new Cabinet-level department merging 170,000 employees and 22 federal agencies. The latest version of the bill House of Representatives 299-121 Wednesday night and is on the verge of approval in the Senate.
Senators voted 65-29 Friday to limit debate on the bill, in a sign the final measure will pass with or without the controversial measures. Sen. Daschle said the bill will come to a vote on Monday.
In an often heated debate on the Senate floor Friday, Democrats pointed a finger at the White House for supporting some of the last minute provisions -- such as the move to limit drug company liability.
That provision would limit the liability of the makers of additives used in vaccines. It would retroactively limit lawsuits on drugs such as Thimerosal, a mercury based vaccine preservative manufactured by Eli Lilly & Co., that has been blamed in a number of class action lawsuits for causing autism in children.
The White House defended the provision Friday. "These provisions still allow people the right to compensation or the right to sue if they believe they've been harmed by the use of a particular vaccine. We just want to close loopholes, where people can circumvent that process," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Democrats also reserved special ire for the move to revoke the off-shore company ban, which was introduced by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Mo. Wellstone died in a plane crash Oct. 25.
"I just find it very difficult to understand why we will allow those who choose not to be supportive of America with their tax dollars to have equal access to contracts of the federal government in regard to homeland security," said Sen. John Corizine, D-N.J.