Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush and congressional leaders pledged Wednesday to work through their disagreements and quickly pass legislation to secure the nation's airways.
Emerging from a White House meeting with the president, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said he still opposes Bush's proposal to give the federal government control of airport screening without hiring thousands of new federal workers. But he said Americans won't stand for gridlock on the issue.
"We'd like the right steps to be taken, but again the main thing is we get this done. People want security on airlines," Gephardt, D-Mo., said, adding that Congress can't "let another day go by" with passing a bill.
He was joined at the microphones by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., also met with Bush but did not attend the question-and-answer session afterward.
The House votes Thursday on legislation that both sides agree is needed badly to fill dangerous holes in airport security but has created a deep ideological split over the role of government.
On Oct. 11, the Senate voted 100-0 for a bill that makes all airport security screeners federal workers with the same professional status as customs or immigration officials. But Bush and House Republican leaders have objected strongly to putting 28,000 screeners on the federal payroll. Their approach would have government supervisors at security gates but would not require federal screeners, leaving the choice of government or private to the administration.
House lawmakers are expected to be able to choose between the two options in a separate vote that is too close to call. Both sides were lobbying hard Tuesday.
Lott vowed that despite the logjam, "We're going to get this done."
Bush met separately Tuesday with 13 Republicans and 13 Democrats at the White House to press his argument that the best way to improve security was to follow the model of some European countries and Israel, where governments retain tight control of training and supervision but the work forces remain private.
Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., said he was an early supporter of the Senate bill, but the president and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta had convinced him their approach was "the surest way we can make sure the American public is safe when they fly."
Other House Republicans said they were sticking with the Senate version. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., who did not attend the White House meeting, said creating a federal security force at airports could have major benefits at a modest cost.
Mineta, who is to speak to House Republicans again Wednesday, told a national transportation security conference Tuesday that "an unacceptable level of deficiencies continue to occur" at airport security checkpoints. "I want confidence restored in the screening system," Mineta said.
Among recent indications of lapses in security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was the failure in New Orleans to detect a loaded pistol that a passenger inadvertently carried onto a plane.
Supporters of the Senate bill argued that congressional inaction on aviation security has contributed to a general perception that flying remains unsafe and worsened the prolonged slump in air travel.
"This is about changing the status quo," argued Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a leading backer of the Senate bill. "Halfway measures, quasifederal oversight, simply will not work. The world has changed, and so must we."
Currently, airlines are responsible for contracting out security functions at airports, often resulting in the hiring of poorly trained, poorly paid workers who have high turnover rates and aren't properly checked before they are hired. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri said it was a "matter of urgent national security" that they be replaced with highly trained professional agents.
The House majority leader, Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, counters that the insistence on creating new civil servants show the Democrats' "predilection for growing big government."
If the House were to approve the Senate version, it would go directly to the president. The White House has indicated that Bush, while not happy with it, would sign the Senate bill because he wants an aviation security law. If the bill supported by House GOP leaders were to prevail, the issue would go to a House-Senate conference for what could be difficult and lengthy negotiations.
The opposing bills have some common objectives, such as increasing the number of air marshals on flights, expanding anti-hijacking training for flight crews, fortifying cockpit doors and moving toward X-ray inspection of all carryon and checked bags. They would impose a passenger fee of $2.50 per flight to pay for heightened security.
The House GOP bill also has language, inserted by the House Judiciary Committee, that limits liability for damages arising out of the crashes of the four hijacked planes on Sept. 11.
------The House GOP bill is H.R. 3050.
The Senate bill is S. 1447.
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