Air safety bill gains House OK

Tight vote approves keeping private-firm baggage screeners

Clash with Senate version

Measure would give Bush `flexibility' on airport security

War On Terrorism

The Nation

November 02, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Propelled by an intense lobbying effort led by President Bush, the House approved last night a federal takeover of airport security that would allow for the continued use of private contractors as baggage screeners instead of replacing them with federal employees.

The Republican-led House voted 218-214 to reject a Senate-passed plan to put federal law enforcement officers at every airport checkpoint - a bill that would have gone straight to the White House for Bush's signature.

Instead, the House voted 286-139 for an alternative plan that would give the president the flexibility to let private security companies continue to handle baggage screening, though under direct federal supervision from now on.

It is not clear when a final measure could take effect. Differences between the two approaches must now be reconciled. Supporters are hopeful that this will happen before Thanksgiving, to reassure travelers still wary of flying after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"The American people deserve tough security standards, and the House plan delivers," Bush said in a statement last night. "I urge the House and Senate to quickly work together to send a strong and effective bill to my desk."

House Republican leaders, who fiercely opposed the bill adopted by the Democrat-run Senate, contended that private contractors working under federal supervisors would provide a more efficient security system.

Incompetent workers, they argued, could be more easily replaced than if they were part of the federal work force.

Republicans also asserted that the improved security changes could be made more quickly than if the government had to hire 28,000 new federal employees.

"Put your confidence in the president," House Majority Leader Dick Armey said before the vote. "Give the president the ability, the authority to do what is necessary to keep our children safe in the air."

Democrats maintained that airport gate screening should be recognized as a law enforcement job that requires a professional federal work force instead of the private contractors who perform the task now.

They complained that the private screeners are low-paid, poorly trained workers with little commitment to their responsibilities.

"This is police work," said House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt. "The companies that have been doing this have failed the American people. It is time for them to be replaced."

"Do you want to contract out the Capitol Police?" Gephardt asked his colleagues. "Do you want to contract out the U.S. Marines?

The debate reflected long-standing partisan views: Republicans asserted that Democrats were supporting their backers in the federal unions. Democrats contended that Republicans were trying to save the jobs of the private security companies. Federal unions and security contractors were also heavily involved in the lobbying.

"This has become a political football," observed Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican and chief sponsor of the House-passed bill.

Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County was among the eight Republicans who voted with all but six Democrats to support the Senate-passed version.

"I represent a lot of federal employees," she explained. "I think they can do a better job with better accountability."

Maryland's three other Republicans voted with the president. All four Maryland Democrats backed the Senate-passed approach, to make airport security workers part of the federal work force.

As part of the last-ditch lobbying, a host of special interest provisions were added to the House Republican bill Wednesday night to win the votes of wavering legislators.

Among the most influential was an across-the-board exemption from lawsuits arising from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. This provision was a high priority for city and state officials in New York.

The airport security legislation is one of a series of bills offered in the aftermath of the attacks in which commercial airliners were hijacked and used as weapons of mass destruction by suicide bombers.

Both the House and Senate versions of the legislation are intended to tighten airport security and boost passenger confidence by imposing new federal controls on a system that has been largely run by the airlines. Both call for reinforced cockpit doors, putting air marshals on nearly all commercial flights and inspecting all carry-on and checked baggage.

There was broad agreement on those provisions. But the legislation has been bogged down in the high-pitched debate over whether to expand the government work force to include those who screen passengers and baggage.

After wrangling for a couple of weeks over the issue, the Senate voted 100-0 on Oct. 11 to approve a version of the bill that make the nation's 28,000 airline screeners federal employees.

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