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House OKs aviation security bill
WASHINGTON -- The House passed aviation security legislation Thursday after rejecting a Senate version that would have turned airport screening operations over to federal employees. The vote was a major victory for the White House and its Republican allies.
The bill, which takes steps to make airplanes and airports safer from attack, passed 286-139.
It followed minutes after a crucial 218-214 vote to defeat the Senate-passed, Democratic-backed alternative. The Republican-backed bill would allow screening to be contracted out to private employers.
"The American people deserve tough security standards and the House plan delivers," President Bush said in a statement. "I urge the House and Senate to work together to send a strong and effective bill to my desk."
The House action could delay for weeks enacting a wide-ranging package of new security measures aimed at restoring Americans' confidence in flying after terrorists hijacked four airliners Sept. 11 and turned them into weapons of mass destruction. Lawmakers now face the task of trying to find a compromise with the Senate, which voted 100-0 three weeks ago to pass the measure making screeners federal employees.
"My greatest fear is that if it goes to a conference, it never comes out," House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt said earlier Thursday.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a key sponsor of the Senate bill, said he expected the Senate to stand by its emphasis on federal screeners and "fight to restore these important security measures."
Bush met GOP lawmakers Thursday morning and made calls throughout the day trying to win over the last undecided members. "I want every mom and dad who gets on an airplane to feel safe," he said. In the end, eight Republicans voted for the Senate bill while six Democrats voted against it.
The Republican bill puts the government in control of the training and supervision of airport baggage screeners but allows the president to decide whether screeners should be public servants or private employees.
GOP conservatives strongly resisted the formation of a new federal work force of some 28,000 people. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a chief sponsor of the Republican bill, said he was determined not to "create the biggest bureaucracy in the history of a generation."
Democrats asserted that the current system, in which airlines contract out security functions to private companies, has failed to provide air travelers with adequate security and that screening must become a law enforcement operation.
"Do you want to contract out the Capitol Police?" Gephardt asked his colleagues. "Do you want to contract out the U.S. Marines? If it is good enough for us, it is good enough for the American people."
More air marshals
Both bills require more air marshals on commercial flights as well as secure cockpit doors. They would expand anti-hijacking training for crews and move toward inspecting all checked bags and matching passengers and bags.
Had the Democratic bill passed, it would have gone directly to the president for his signature. With passage of the Republican bill, the measure must next go to a House-Senate conference for what could be a difficult attempt to resolve differences.
"What a tragedy it would be, after seven weeks of delay, that we'd delay even more prior to the time we complete our work and ensure greater security and safety in airports all across this country," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
House Republicans contended that a compromise with the Senate could be worked out swiftly and that putting an effective new federal work force in place could take years, leaving airports vulnerable.
"I believe that President Bush will be able to get the right mix if we give him enough flexibility to get the job done," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
If Congress fails to produce a bill, the president could impose some security measures, such as fortifying cockpit doors and expanding the air marshal program, by executive order.
Quick agreement needed
There was common agreement that Congress must act quickly to get leery Americans back on planes.
"If we do not upgrade aviation security and show the American flying public that our skies are once again safe and secure, then the American aviation industry will continue to flounder and shrink," said Rep. William Lipinski of Illinois, a senior Transportation Committee Democrat.
Aviation security is the third major piece of legislation dealing with the attacks. Congress last month passed a $40 billion relief package for victims and a $15 billion package to help the airlines.
Republicans tinkered with their bill until the last, adding provisions that Democrats said were aimed mainly at capturing a few more votes.
Those included measures to deputize contract workers as federal workers with uniforms and badges, allow airline caterers to share in a $1.5 billion fund to help pay for post-Sept. 11 security costs, and extend liability protections from the terrorist attacks. The bailout bill provided liability limits for the involved airlines; the GOP language would expand that to include plane builders, building owners and other involved parties.
Gephardt said that could include private airport security companies that have been under fire for giving their employees poor pay and training. "We shouldn't be rewarding the mistakes and failures that these companies have committed."
Among other differences, the Democratic bill would have moved overall control of aviation security to the Justice Department. The Republicans would create a new transportation security agency in the Transportation Department.
The Democrats would have imposed a $2.50 per flight fee to pay for increased security. The GOP fee would be $2.50 per trip, so passengers who take connecting flights don't pay twice.