GOP taking risk on airport security

November 07, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- With the House and Senate split on whether airport screeners should be federal employees or private company employees supervised by the feds, the blame game for not taking the necessary steps to prevent a future terrorist hijacking is already well under way.

While congressional Democrats continue to press for full federalization and the Republicans hold out for the semi-private route, incidents like the one at O'Hare Airport in Chicago the other day highlight the political as well as the physical urgency for a resolution of the dispute.

A 27-year-old Nepalese man carried a bag containing a small arsenal of knives, a stun gun and a can of chemical spray through one United Airlines security checkpoint before the contents were discovered at a second checkpoint. He was arrested, later prompting the airline to open his checked baggage and take a look. Three more large knives were found.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the airline would be fined and would be obliged to retrain all of its baggage screeners at the ultra-busy airport.

He took the action despite a laughable defense by a United spokesman who claimed the security system worked because the man was stopped by a second security check at the gate.

Meanwhile, the members of Congress of both parties face no sanction -- yet -- for their deplorable partisan jurisdictional wrangling that is holding up an imperative revamping of the screening system.

Finger-pointing is going both directions, but the most deserving targets are House Majority Leader Dick Armey and his sidekick, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, still chanting the tired conservative mantra against big government. They lament the need to create 28,000 new federal jobs as voted unanimously by the Senate.

Their bill, which squeaked through the House by two votes with President Bush doing some late arm-twisting of wavering Republicans, would authorize the president to use a combination of federal and privately employed screeners.

They would be supervised by the Transportation Department rather than the Justice Department, as the Senate proposes.

That all Republican senators joined in the Senate version not only demonstrated their awareness of the security urgency of a quick and forceful statement on the matter, but it also reflected their appreciation of how the Democrats could make political hay of any evidence that the party of the president was foot-dragging in response to the call to reassure the nation's flying public.

Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who never uses a fly-swatter when a howitzer will do to smite a political foe, was swift to observe that "Americans do not feel safe about flying" and "Tom DeLay and his right-wing ideologues have put the American public at risk."

Even some House Republicans, however, have expressed concern about the partisan impasse. Rep. Greg Ganske of Iowa, who supports a federal screening work force, said the other day: "I pray that there isn't an aviation disaster before this thing is resolved."

The pressure is on both the House and Senate now to resolve the basic differences between the bills, which also include a number of other security steps on which there is agreement.

One compromise under consideration, according to Democratic Sen. John Breaux, who has tried to help Mr. Bush bridge party disagreements on other matters, would be to assign federal screeners at the nation's largest and busiest airports and use private screeners at the others, under federal supervision.

Democratic critics aren't letting it go unnoticed that the Republicans acted with great haste in voting a huge bailout for the airlines when they seized on the economic impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the industry to plead for federal help, leaving laid-off workers to fend for themselves.

The failure of House Republicans to follow the lead of their Senate counterparts in taking strong bipartisan action on an issue of great public concern will leave them on the short end if another terrorist air tragedy occurs before a much-improved airport security system is in place.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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