WASHINGTON — House Democrats scrambled on Tuesday to salvage legislation that would bar federal agencies from punishing employees who report corruption, waste, and mismanagement after Republicans linked the bill to the WikiLeaks scandal.
In hopes of securing needed GOP support, Democrats offered to strip provisions that extend whistleblower protections to workers at U.S. intelligence agencies, which backers of the bill see as a major concession. Even though its supporters say the legislation makes classified disclosures through WikiLeaks or other outlets illegal, Republicans had complained that it still might encourage leaks by employees in the most sensitive government jobs.
Even that concession may not be enough to sway House Republicans, who see no reason to rush the legislation before Congress adjourns for the year.
A spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who becomes chairman of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee next month, said GOP lawmakers contacted the congressman with their worries about the Obama administration's plan to deal with WikiLeaks. They also wanted to know whether the legislation included provisions to block further disclosures.
"There's a lot of ambiguity out there about what the administration is or isn't going to do on WikiLeaks," said spokesman Frederick Hill. "I think that's really creating a lot of concern."
Three years ago, Issa and more than 100 other Republicans had voted for a version of whistle-blower protection legislation that ultimately didn't make it through Congress.
In a Dec. 16 letter to Issa, a coalition of public interest groups urged Issa to back the new bill, saying "efforts to draw a connection between WikiLeaks and this good government measure are misguided."
On Monday, one of the coalition members, the Project on Government Oversight, was more critical of Issa.
"We are disappointed that Mr. Issa has flip-flopped on the bill he used to support and instead is perpetuating the myth that this bill would protect WikiLeaks," says a statement posted on the project's Web site.
Without the national security provisions, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act provides expanded whistleblower protections for civil service employees outside the intelligence agencies, including thousands of Transportation Security Administration baggage screeners and headquarters staff. The rights also extend to employees who challenge the censorship or misrepresentation of federal research.
Whistleblowers outside the intelligence agencies would also be able to seek a jury trial in federal court to appeal dismissals or demotions.
Losing the national security provisions would be a significant blow to the White House and the public interest coalition that spent months working with the House and Senate to shape the bill. With the GOP taking control of the House in January, supporters of the legislation expect a less sympathetic climate if they're forced to start anew.
In an e-mailed statement, White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said the "administration has been working to resolve the objections raised by the minority in the House, and we will continue to do so."
The Senate approved the bill on Dec. 10. House Democrats had wanted to pass the measure before adjourning for the year under a procedure used to pass noncontroversial bills quickly. But a two-thirds vote is required, which means roughly 40 Republicans are needed.
Changing the Senate bill would shift the procedural picture. If the Republicans agree to the scaled-down bill, the House could pass it in short order. But it would have to go back to the Senate for final approval because of the changes. And that may not happen because there is so little time left before adjournment.
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