Bush airport security win may be costly

President risks blame from anxious travelers for perceived delay

November 03, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush narrowly won a high-profile battle over airline security this week, but that victory might well prove costly.

With Bush's help, House Republican leaders broke the momentum Thursday of a Senate-passed measure that would have put the federal government in charge of airport security in time for the Thanksgiving travel season.

Now, Democratic Senate leaders - calculating that anxious travelers are more likely to blame Bush and the Republicans for the delay - are signaling that they feel little pressure to compromise their views on airline security with the conservative Republicans who won passage of an alternative proposal.

"The president can solve this, but it's going to be difficult," said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "From a purely political standpoint, the Democrats are very well-positioned."

"It's too bad he didn't listen to his original instincts and stay out of it," Baker said of the president.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, whose favored version of airline security legislation had earlier passed the Senate on a vote to 100-0, issued a contentious message.

"The House held up this bill for three weeks; they are to blame for any delay," said Molly Rowley, a spokeswoman for Daschle. "We don't feel the need to make a political compromise that is going to endanger passenger safety."

Publicly, Bush and congressional leaders of both parties called for a quick resolution of differences between House and Senate approaches to tightening aviation security. Yet both sides expect a potentially long standoff.

The legislation at issue has been described by some lawmakers as the most important measure proposed in response to the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks. It is intended to restore the confidence of travelers who fear that another plane could be turned into a bomb by suicide hijackers.

The House and Senate versions of the measure would put the federal government in charge of sharply tightened airport security. The principal difference is that the Senate bill would make the 28,000 agents who screen passengers and baggage part of the federal work force.

By contrast, the House bill calls for the continued use of the private contractors who serve as screeners - though with stricter federal supervision.

Bush lobbied intensely for nearly four days to persuade the House to reject the Senate version by a 4-vote margin.

The president and House Republican leaders sought yesterday to minimize the differences between the two bills.

"I believe the differences are small, and I believe they can be reconciled quickly so that I can sign an airline security bill that will say to the American people that we are doing everything we possibly can to recover from the aftermath of September the 11th," Bush said.

The president said he was prepared to assume an active role to ensure that negotiations between the House and Senate produce a final version as quickly as possible.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, one of the Republican leaders who pressed Bush to become actively involved in the fight, described the differences between the two bills as "nominal." Reaching a compromise, Armey said, would be "just a matter of rising to the occasion."

From the standpoint of safety, many lawmakers privately acknowledge that it might not matter much whether federal employees or private contractors serve as screeners - so long as the screeners are better trained, better paid and more closely supervised by the federal government than they are now. Equally important, they say, is communicating to the traveling public that airline safety is being enhanced.

"People are really angry at us," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who favors the Senate approach. "I hear that from people all the time. I say: `You wanted things back to normal. We're back to normal.'"

Senators of both parties say they think the Republicans stand to lose more, though, if the stalemate delays action on airport security past Thanksgiving.

Initially, the president tried to stay above the fray. After the Senate bill passed, administration officials expressed concern primarily about how to manage the transition from private contractors to public employees.

But under heavy pressure from key House Republicans, especially the whip, Rep. Tom DeLay, Bush was drawn gradually into the center of the battle. By the time of the vote, House approval of the Senate bill would have been portrayed as a major setback for Bush.

Some of the promises to special interests made to win support for the House bill are expected to face resistance in the House-Senate negotiating conference. Chief among them is an across-the-board exemption from lawsuits resulting from the terrorist attacks - an exemption intended to protect businesses and governments, particularly in New York.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a longtime advocate for trial lawyers, complained that that provision is "not appropriate" for this bill.

Fighting alongside Hollings to protect the Senate bill will be Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who opposed Bush for the Republican presidential nomination last year and remains a frequent irritant.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, declared that a compromise will eventually be found because the public will demand it. But Senate Republican aides predicted that the process would be acrimonious.

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