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House homeland panel reverses field on baggage-screening deadline

The House Select Homeland Security Committee reversed itself Friday, first voting to retain a year-end deadline for the Transportation Security Administration to implement baggage-sreeening systems at airports, then later accepting an amendment shifting the deadline to Dec. 31, 2003.

Friday morning, the committee accepted, on a 6-3 vote, an amendment offered by Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey to keep the current deadline for setting up explosive-detection systems at airports. The deadline was included in the legislation creating the TSA last fall.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who drafted the homeland security legislation and chairs the ad hoc committee, tucked a provision into the legislation Thursday that would have removed the deadline.

Friday, Armey said his decision was a tough one, but it was "the right one"-and one he could make because he plans to retire at the end of the year. But Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, joined Democrats in voting to strip the language from the bill.

Later, though, Watts backed a measure to shift the deadline for implementing explosive-detection systems as far back as March 31, 2004. Republicans argued that the current deadline was simply unrealistic and would require airports to implement inferior systems.

"We want the best technology in airports as possible," said House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas.

But the amendment drew the ire of Democrats on the panel. Currently, "very little baggage gets checked [for explosives]," said Menendez. "The overwhelming percentage goes unchecked. That's why Congress overwhelmingly voted to have deadlines-to keep those people's feet to the fire to produce those explosive detection devices as soon as possible."

In the end, though, the panel voted 6-3 to accept a compromise offered by Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, to shift the deadline to Dec. 31, 2003.