Congress still divided on issue of federalizing airport security

Democrats and Republicans in Congress continue to disagree on whether to federalize more than 20,000 airport security jobs nationwide, but are likely to reach an agreement soon.

The Senate this afternoon tried to take up the aviation security bill offered by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., but Republicans objected, halting action on the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said that while he and the Bush administration would prefer a public-private partnership on baggage screening while the bill would require federal screeners at major airports, the bill should eventually move forward.

"It makes sense for us to try," Lott said.

Lott added that he has urged colleagues not to "bring up every good idea" and that the work on the bill should be completed soon.

Daschle, who discussed the legislation Tuesday with Bush, declined to speculate on whether the President would accept a bill that creates over 20,000 new federal jobs in airport security, but said, "There is a general belief among all the players that federalization is going to be some part of this."

A spokesman for Hollings said the senator is pleased that the White House "said they weren't going to stand in the way" of more federal control at airports.

On the House side, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said both federalization of security personnel and worker assistance should be part of any security package.

Gephardt said the worker assistance provisions did not necessarily have to be in the airline safety bill, but that they should be considered "simultaneously" on the House floor.

House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member James Oberstar, D-Minn., said he supports language providing for 25,000 to 28,000 federal employees to man airport checkpoints, and the employees would be hired through an expedited process. He also said these workers would receive "a substantial pay increase" to the $30,000 to $35,000 annual range.

Oberstar said he continues to have "productive talks" with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., and he believes President Bush has "shifted in the right direction" on the issue of federalization, but said the White House's continued desire to maintain a private contractors' system under federal supervision is unacceptable because it "keeps the profit motive in the process."

Gephardt said it was his "hope" that the President would not veto a bill containing complete federalization. House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he prefers a public-private sector approach to airport security that would place the responsibility for most airport security on the airlines, but with perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 federal employees charged with overseeing the tighter security.

"This is a good place to have a public-private relationship," Blunt said. "The private sector has a good opportunity to come up with the best practice in a competitive way." Blunt said he shares reservations about employing as many as 28,000 federal workers.

Asked to judge the feeling within the Republican Conference, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said today House Republicans are cool to the idea of federalizing that many workers.

"I don't think that is a sentiment broadly shared within the caucus," Armey said.

Meanwhile, the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 2,000 of the current screeners, is making the case that, based on experience in the law enforcement community, federal authorities would have to wade through about 450,000 applications just to fill the current screener positions.

The union also argues that the most secure airports in Europe and Israel use private screening contractors with close government supervision.

"The Hollings bill takes us to where Europe was 15 years ago," said SEIU legislative director Skip Roberts, referring to the bill by Senate Commerce Chairman Hollings that is slated for floor consideration in that chamber. Roberts said SEIU represents "thousands" of federal employees and expects to represent at least some of the workers at airport checkpoints, even if the positions are federalized.