WASHINGTON—Efforts to make airlines and U.S. airports safer stood at an impasse Thursday as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called Republicans "obstructionist."
Saying he objected to extraneous amendments, Republican Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) refused to allow the Senate to work on the airline security legislation or on an appropriations bill. For much of the day, the upper chamber was silent.
Many Republicans in Congress have objected to the Senate Commerce Committee's bill that would turn airport security over to the federal government and federalize employees responsible for screening passengers and baggage.
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush is worried that "when somebody is put as a member of the federal civil service, it's virtually impossible to ever take any type of action or disciplinary action if their work is not up to standards."
"And the president thinks it's very important that, in the case of the screeners and the workers, that the managers have the ability to make certain that their work is up to all relevant standards and can take disciplinary action if appropriate or if necessary," Fleischer said.
Crafted by Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the legislation would increase the number of federal air marshals on airplanes, require airlines to retrofit cockpit doors so they cannot be opened, and ensure that federal employees screen and check all baggage and all passengers in the nation's 140 largest airports.
But Republicans dislike possible amendments to the legislation to help unemployed airline workers and to boost funding for Amtrak rail security.
"The problem is that we have some unrelated issues that are still being discussed . . . and we've got to figure out how to deal with that because if we start adding all kind of hitchhikers to this train, it will slow down or stop it," Lott said.
Republican leadership aides also have said that they are worried that the bill would cause airport security workers to quit their jobs, leaving security gaps.
"I'm disappointed, obviously, that our Republican colleagues have chosen what has been clearly an obstructionist approach here, but that's their choice," Daschle (D-S.D.) told reporters.
Daschle also defended efforts to secure the railroads as well as the airways.
"God forbid we'd have some tragedy in the course of the next several days, and I don't think there'd be a person who would oppose airport or railroad safety under those circumstances," Daschle said.
He also lashed out at lawmakers who are resisting efforts to help people who have been laid off by the airlines since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Daschle also suggested that terrorists are monitoring Congress' actions.
"The longer we wait, the more we invite further difficulty, the more we invite the possibility that some other occurrence might cause our country to experience situations that we ought to do everything we can to avoid," he said.
Some Republicans who dislike the Hollings-McCain legislation and are philosophically opposed to expanding the federal government and its work force, frowned on the tough rhetoric.
"He surely didn't use the word obstructionist," Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said when informed of Daschle's remarks.
Nickles said it is important for Democrats and Republicans to work together, but he said he did not believe Democrats had the right approach with the airline security bill.
In the House, Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri said Congress must take care of airport screeners, many of whom make the minimum wage.
"Many of them could be trained and could do better," he said.