House bracing for battle over airport security

Federal or private status of screening employees seen as bill roadblock

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 31, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Seven weeks after hijacked airliners were turned into bombs, legislation that would put the federal government in charge of airport security is ensnarled in a debate over whether baggage screeners should be private or federal employees.

A House showdown on the issue, scheduled for tomorrow, could bring the debate to a quick end. Or it could put off a resolution even longer.

The airline industry is fervently hoping that Congress passes something - anything - to boost passenger confidence in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, traditionally its busiest travel season of the year.

"Thanksgiving will be the big test," said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association. "The public perception is that until legislation is enacted, there is still a reason to be concerned about airport security."

President Bush raised the stakes yesterday by calling a group of lawmakers to the White House to lobby personally on behalf of the approach favored by House Republicans. The Republicans want to give the president the flexibility to decide whether to make the airport screeners private contractors or federal workers.

The president has said that he is eager to get an airline security bill passed, and aides have signaled that he would likely sign whatever version lands on his desk.

"I don't think the president of the United States wants to play hardball politics with the security of the nation's airports," House Majority Leader Dick Armey said, acknowledging that a veto is unlikely.

Out of airlines' hands

Almost everyone, including airline officials, agrees that responsibility for screening passengers and baggage should no longer be left to the nation's airlines.

Under pressure to board passengers quickly and keep costs down, the airlines have generally relied on poorly trained, low-wage contract workers who, until the Sept. 11 attacks, were not considered a high priority in America's national security network.

"Our system right now stinks," said Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Congress and the administration also agree that the government must take over close supervision of the airport screening process: setting the qualification standards for screeners, and overseeing the hiring, testing, and training of the workers.

But there is a sharp, mostly partisan divide over whether those workers should actually become part of the federal civil service.

Federal status debate

Democrats, who persuaded the Senate to adopt their approach, argue that airport screening is so important that it requires highly trained, professional agents, who would regard their job as a career and would be rewarded with a salary and benefits to match.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat who is chairman of the Commerce Committee and is a longtime advocate of federalizing airport screeners, argued that the nation should no longer be "contracting out" for security protection.

The Senate bill passed Oct. 11 by a 100-0 vote - a unanimity that belied a debate over whether to federalize the screeners that stalled the measure for two weeks.

Republicans, led in the House by fellow Texans Armey and their whip, Rep. Tom DeLay, said they oppose making the screeners federal workers because it would be too difficult to fire them for poor job performance. They also object to expanding the federal work force.

A more effective security operation, Republicans said, would be provided by private contractors working under federal supervision.

House Republicans argue that the Democrats are doing the bidding of organized labor, which wants to add 28,000 union jobs to the federal work force.

Democrats, in turn, contend that Republicans are responding to the wishes of the private security companies that covet the airport business.

Presidential persuasion

Tomorrow's showdown in the House comes after Republican leaders spent nearly three weeks trying to round up the votes for a measure that would let the president choose between using federal workers or private contractors, or some mix of the two.

Young, the chief sponsor of the Republican bill, predicted yesterday that "we will have the votes" when the measure comes up.

Yet the outcome has seemed so uncertain that Bush's powers of persuasion have been called upon repeatedly in recent days. He responded first with a letter to House leaders endorsing their measure, followed by his radio address Saturday and then by a meeting with 11 House Republicans yesterday at the White House.

"The Young bill allows the use of private contractors operating under tough federal standards on background checks with federal law enforcement at every gate to promote better screening services, and ensure that security managers can move aggressively to discipline or fire employees who fail to live up to the rigorous new standards," Bush said in his radio address.

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