Senate defeats bid to strike TSA union rights provision

With heavy backing from organized labor, Senate Democrats prevailed Tuesday in keeping a provision in a massive homeland security bill that gives federal airport screeners collective bargaining rights, moving them one step closer to a veto showdown with the White House.

By a 51-46 vote, Democrats tabled an amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., that would have stricken the collective bargaining rights provision from a bill designed to implement unfulfilled recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., crossed party lines to vote with the Democrats.

The provision has heavy backing from labor unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees, but the White House has threatened to veto the bill if it is included.

"It's outrageous that some politicians want to protect union bosses more than they want to protect Americans from terrorist attacks," DeMint said. "This provision was not recommended by the 9/11 Commission; it was recommended by labor unions."

Supporters countered that the provision would improve homeland security by boosting the morale of screeners and decreasing the number of workers who quit. The provision is similar to language in a high-priority bill approved by the House in January to implement the unfinished recommendations.

But 36 Republican senators last week and 146 House Republicans Monday pledged to sustain a veto, numbers sufficient to deny the Democrats the needed two-thirds majority to override.

"We believe that providing a select group of federal airport security employees with mandated collective bargaining rights could needlessly put the security of our nation at risk," the Republicans wrote. DeMint also said the provision could give labor unions that contribute to Democratic campaigns $17 million more annually in new membership dues.

Despite the demise of the DeMint amendment, the provision could face another key vote, as Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, has offered an amendment to replace it. Her amendment would give federal screeners more workforce and whistleblower protections, but require the government to study over the next year whether to give them collective bargaining rights.

Meanwhile, senators were gearing up for another battle over how best to distribute billions of dollars in state homeland security grants. Unlike the party-line split over screener rights, this battle essentially pits senators from states with large urban areas against those from smaller and more rural states.

Under current law, each state is guaranteed 0.75 percent of total funding available under the state homeland security grant program. An amendment backed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, would lower the guaranteed minimum to 0.25 percent. The remainder of the funding would be distributed based on risk and most likely go to states with large urban centers.

The underlying bill would give states a guaranteed minimum of 0.45 percent of total state homeland security grants. But a second bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., offered an amendment to keep the current 0.75 percent guarantee, and a third bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., offered an amendment to break states into two groups. Those with an international border would be guaranteed 0.45 percent of state homeland security grants; those without an international border 0.25 percent.

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