Airline security compromise eludes Congress

House, Senate in talks to reconcile versions before holiday break

November 14, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Congress remained stalled yesterday over a measure to tighten airline security, even as lawmakers acknowledged that the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 had renewed fears of flying that had just begun to subside in recent weeks.

House and Senate negotiators plan to resume talks this afternoon that they hope will produce a compromise that can be approved by both houses before they adjourn for their Thanksgiving break.

Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas offered a proposal on airport screeners, one of the impediments to bridging the differences between competing versions of legislation proposed in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings.

But negotiators quit for the evening without resolving the issue of whether private companies that now perform gate screening at nearly all of the nation's airports will be allowed to stay on in some fashion or be entirely replaced by federal employees.

The Democrat-led Senate has approved a measure calling for a total federal takeover, on the grounds that screening passengers and baggage must now regarded as a matter of national security.

The Republican-run House, fearful of taking work away from private business and creating more unionized government jobs, approved a competing measure that would gives the president the option of using private screeners working under close federal supervision.

With the Thanksgiving travel season looming and potential passengers newly haunted by the grim scenes of Monday's air disaster in New York, lawmakers say they are aware that the future of some airline companies hangs in the balance.

"We'll be making a huge mistake not to get this bill out of this committee and sent to the president by Friday," Hutchison warned.

Federal investigators have said they have found no evidence that sabotage or terrorism was behind Monday's crash.

Still, the disaster has highlighted Congress' failure to complete work on airline security legislation, a measure that lawmakers concede is perhaps the most critical one they have taken up in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

As he left Washington for two days of talks at his Texas ranch with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, President Bush called on Congress to "work day and night to get an airline security bill to my desk."

"The American people expect progress. And I do, too," he added.

One point on which all sides seemed to agree was the need to complete action on the airline security measure before Congress leaves for its holiday break.

"I think that it's imperative we finish this bill this week," said Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "If we leave without finishing airport security, I think we have a right to be criticized. It's got to be done."

House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who stalled House action on the legislation for three weeks until he could round up enough votes to defeat the Senate-passed version, blamed Senate negotiators for "foot-dragging."

"It's time for them to get serious and get moving," DeLay said, calling for approval of a final deal that would include the House provision allowing private contractors to perform the screening, as they do now.

Compromises under consideration include a mix of private and government screening.

Hutchison proposed that the nation's 31 busiest airports use federal employees as screeners, while more than 350 smaller airports be allowed to use private workers if they prefer. Her proposal would also require that passengers who board at smaller airports, but transfer to connecting flights at larger ones, have their bags checked a second time by federal screeners.

Her proposal was greeted as "an excellent basis for compromise" by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of the main sponsors of the Senate measure.

But Democrats and some Republicans on the negotiating committee resisted creating a two-tiered system that, they said, might lead to inferior security at smaller airports, simply in order to keep private security companies in business.

Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, a Minnesota Republican, complained that Hutchison's plan to require passengers on connecting flights to collect their baggage and be screened a second time would create a logistical nightmare.

Last week, White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. offered a compromise that would require federal employees to be screeners at the nation's smallest airports, while private contractors continue to staff the largest airports.

"I told him you've got it bass-ackwards," said Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina.

Hollings, a leading proponent of federalizing the screening system, said he believed he had been vindicated by continuing lapses at airports, in which passengers with weapons have passed through checkpoints staffed by private screeners.

"There's no education in the second kick of a mule, or a third or a fourth," Hollings said. "You can't compromise security. This isn't an appropriations bill that you can just divide 50-50."

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