WASHINGTON—In the days before the House of Representatives rejected turning over airport security to federal employees, House Democrats watched in dismay as Majority Whip Tom DeLay rounded up the precise number of votes needed to continue private security screening at the nation's airports.
"Arms have been twisted out of their sockets," said Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) with a mixture of glumness and awe.
Texas) is charged with counting votes and persuading lawmakers to side with the Republican leadership on important matters. His maneuvering, along with the help of others, on the airport bill helped turn what many thought would be easy passage of legislation federalizing airport security into a painful defeat for Democrats.
The GOP victory Thursday presages a difficult House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences between the Senate and House versions of the legislation.
On Friday, President Bush urged Congress to meet quickly to send him a final bill.
"I believe the differences are small, and I believe they can be reconciled quickly," Bush said.
Securing the nation's airports became a priority after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But while the Senate unanimously endorsed a plan to make airport security workers federal employees, House conservatives objected on long-standing ideological grounds to swelling the government's workforce and increasing the number of likely Democratic union employees. Instead, they preferred to allow private contractors to continue handling airport security under federal supervision.
In the House, DeLay rounded up lobbyists for the airlines, which originally supported the Senate plan to make security workers federal employees.
In a basement room of the Capitol, DeLay told about 20 of the airline executives, according to one lobbyist: "You've got to get on board, we just bailed you out," a reference to the legislation that gave financial aid to ailing airlines. "You've got to back us on this, it's ideological."
Although most of the airlines sat out the security fight, DeLay's intervention kept them from lobbying for the Democratic bill.
DeLay also pressured the White House, which had been cooperating with House and Senate Democrats, to back the conservatives' position in a meeting with President Bush on the Truman balcony. DeLay and other conservatives had felt ignored for weeks, and they told the president as much.
In response, Bush met one-on-one and in small groups with moderate Republicans and conservative "blue-dog" Democrats. Vice President Dick Cheney called wavering lawmakers, asking what they needed to support the Republican bill.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta met on Capitol Hill with lawmakers. In one case he spent more than an hour with Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), scrawling four pages of notes about Quinn's concerns.
Throughout the airline security debate, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) struck a neutral pose. Initially, Hastert said he was willing to support the Democrats' plan to make security workers federal employees to get the bill quickly through the House. When DeLay, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and other Republicans complained to Bush, Hastert backed away.
While Hastert scheduled the bill for a vote, DeLay worked furiously to coordinate the lobbying that would result in the Republicans' win.
At the last minute, the GOP bill was altered to provide an exemption for liability from the events of Sept. 11 to the New York Port Authority. That brought many members of the New York delegation on board.
Liability exemption also was included for Boeing in exchange for the corporation's help in lobbying lawmakers who still were undecided, House and Senate sources said.
On the evening of the vote, DeLay was serving a Mexican dinner to colleagues in his first-floor Capitol suite. Outside the House chamber, lobbyists from the Department of Transportation, the White House and the Aviation Security Association loitered, waiting for lawmakers to arrive, ready to explain and cajole at DeLay's behest.
With no votes to spare, the Democratic bill to federalize airport security workers failed 218-214. With that, the Republican bill to continue using private contractors for security passed 286-139.