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Deal near on federalizing airport security workers

The Senate may bring up a bill as early as Thursday to beef up security at the nation's airports and in airplanes, as the White House signals it will accept federalization of security workers.

The Senate may bring up a bill as early as Thursday to beef up security at the nation's airports and in airplanes, as members of Congress worked to reach an agreement with the White House on the issue of federalization of security workers.

The administration has been reluctant to support a $1.2 billion bill introduced by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., that would make security workers federal agents.

But Hollings indicated at a news conference Tuesday the administration was warming to the idea of putting federal agents at the 140 busiest airports and letting smaller airports bring in local officers. Hollings said the local officers would have "every professional requirement civil servants would have" but that the measure "would allow ... airports to hire the personnel themselves."

Some of the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks came through smaller airports, such as the Portland International Jetport in Maine. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a cosponsor of the bill, said she was looking into the idea of ensuring airports in border states also get federal officers.

Last week, Reps. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, and Robert Andrews, D-N.J., introduced a companion aviation security bill in the House, but House Republicans on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are working on their own proposal. Hollings said talks are continuing with the White House and the House on federalization of security workers.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Bush indicated to congressional leaders in a breakfast meeting Tuesday that while he preferred that baggage screening functions be handled by private-sector workers, he would not let his opposition stand in the way of passing an aviation security measure.

"The President had some concerns about the implications of putting all these new tens of thousands of people on the federal payroll because he believes that there can be effective safety at airports without taking that step," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer yesterday. "But he's aware that there are many members of Congress who see it differently, and he's going to work with them."

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Tuesday he would "like to make sure we don't just lock in place" an inadequate security system, he added that he was "not sure if that [federalization] solves the problem, either."

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., who is drafting the House version of the security bill, told reporters after a meeting with Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., that the federalization issue has yet to be resolved, but that the rest of the bill is essentially "ready to go."

At least one employee union is lobbying to prevent a complete federal takeover of airport security.

Sources said the Service Employees International Union, which has organized thousands of screeners at airports, is concerned that federal employee unions would take over the job of representing airport security workers if the work is federalized.

But an official with the American Federation of Government Employees said the function should be federalized and that AFGE would try to organize such workers. The source downplayed the notion of a rift between the AFGE and the SEIU.

"The SEIU is a very good ally," the official said. "There's no heat between us on this."

SEIU officials were unavailable for comment Tuesday evening.

The AFL-CIO is largely steering clear of this issue as it focuses on the response to airline industry layoffs.