Airport bill hung up on screeners

Washington Bureau

The House on Thursday passed a broad package of measures designed to improve airline security but narrowly rejected a full federal takeover of security screening at the nation's airports.

The action puts the House in conflict with a unanimous Senate vote to place responsibility for screening passengers and baggage with a new 28,000-member federal security force working under the U.S. Department of Justice. Instead, the House would allow private security firms to perform screening under federal supervision.

In the crucial vote on security screeners, Illinois Reps. Rod Blagojevich and Luis Gutierrez of Chicago were among six Democrats who joined Republicans to defeat the Senate version of the legislation 218-214. Eight Republicans supported the Senate version.

Shortly afterward, the House voted 286-139 to approve the sweeping package of aviation security measures, many of which closely resemble provisions in the legislation approved by the Senate in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Both versions would require strengthened cockpit doors, place more armed sky marshals aboard airplanes and allow pilots to carry guns as a last-ditch defense against cockpit intruders. Both also would require that all airport security screeners be U.S. citizens and would mandate criminal background checks on airport employees allowed access to tarmacs and other secure areas.

Negotiators from the two chambers will have to resolve differences in the versions, including the dispute over security screeners, a contentious ideological issue that already has delayed the security legislation for weeks.

With the nation on high alert for another terrorist attack and a peak travel period surrounding Thanksgiving less than three weeks away, leaders of both political parties pledged this week to work to resolve their differences as quickly as possible.

Bush welcomes vote

President Bush welcomed the House vote and asked congressional leaders to stick to their word.

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

The competing visions for the security force spurred frantic lobbying throughout the week, with representatives of private security firms fanning out across Capitol Hill and Bush summoning wavering lawmakers to the White House to make the case against a federal workforce.

Moderate Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta spent an hour lobbying him in person, and the president phoned to make a final plea for his support on Thursday.

Conservatives say turning over airport security to federal employees would be a dramatic and unwarranted expansion of government. They also said it would be easier to fire poorly performing screeners if they worked for a private security firm rather than directly for the federal government.

In debate, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) invoked the wartime prestige of the presidency to rally support.

"Put your confidence in the president. Give the president the ability, the authority to do what is necessary to keep our children safe in the air," he said.

Democrats say the terrorist attacks transformed airport security screening into a crucial law-enforcement function that should not be delegated to private companies.

"I ask all of you: Do you want to contract out the Capitol Police? Do you want to contract out the U.S. Marines? Do you want to contract out the FBI and the Customs Service? I don't think so," said Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Current system draws criticism

Both Republicans and Democrats were critical of the current system for screening passengers, which leaves responsibility with airlines. In most cases, the airlines hire private security contractors.

The security screeners have been plagued by low pay, low morale, poor training and high turnover. Over the years, audits by federal regulators regularly have found that screeners miss weapons hidden in carry-on luggage by testers.

As the House debated, a concourse at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York had to be evacuated and flights grounded after a federal inspector noticed security screeners were not properly searching passengers who set off metal detectors.

The House legislation would give responsibility for passenger screening to the Department of Transportation, which could contract with private firms, as Bush has indicated he prefers, or hire its own employees.

The Senate legislation would create a new agency of the U.S. Justice Department that would hire employees to screen passengers and baggage at the 142 largest airports. The attorney general would have discretion to hire local law-enforcement officers to screen at smaller airports but could not delegate the task to civilian contractors.

The Senate chose to give the responsibility to the Justice Department because of arguments that it is more responsive to law-enforcement concerns and that the Transportation Department is too easily lobbied by airlines.

Both versions of the legislation also would require closer scrutiny of checked baggage.

An amendment added to the House security legislation Thursday capped potential legal liability of aircraft manufacturers and other third parties for the Sept. 11 tragedies to the amount of insurance coverage.

Gutierrez voted against both versions of the legislation because each would prohibit hiring non-citizens.

The Senate legislation would require that all airport screeners be citizens for at least five years. The House Republican bill would require merely that they be citizens.

Blagojevich, who has declared his candidacy for Illinois governor, could not be reached for comment on his vote.

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