Airplane safety up in the air

A bill that would federalize thousands of airport workers stalls under some GOP and White House opposition.

Published October 5, 2001 12:04AM (EDT)

The day may have begun with news of a possible terrorist assault on a Greyhound bus in Tennessee. And it may have ended with (unproven, and later debunked) reports that a Boeing 737 passenger jet from Bombay, India, had been hijacked. But even among such harbingers of doom, the Bush administration and the Congress on Wednesday were unable to reach a consensus on what should be included in an airport security bill.

The Senate legislation, drafted by Sens. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the Commerce Committee chairman and vice-chair, respectively, would put tens of thousands of baggage- and passenger screeners at the 142 major U.S. airports under federal authority and on the government payroll. Smaller airports would be able to hire local law enforcement officials or security personnel as long as they meet the tighter security standards that have been in place since airports were reopened on Sept. 13.

The bill would also authorize a new deployment of gun-carrying air marshals onto commercial aircraft, and would require both secure cockpits for pilots and anti-hijacking training for airline personnel.

But just as debate on the bill was scheduled to begin in the Senate on Wednesday at 2 p.m., Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., objected to the bill's proceeding for reasons both procedural and substantive.

First off, Lott was in agreement with Hollings and McCain in their desire to keep amendments not having to do with airport security out of the debate over the bill. In this, they were opposed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who wanted an open amendment process, mostly to allow an amendment offering a $2.8 billion unemployment compensation for laid-off workers from the airline or related industries as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Legislatively, Lott -- representing the Bush administration and the rest of the GOP leadership in the House and Senate -- opposes federalizing airport security personnel. He also holds concerns over the transition from how the system runs now to whatever it ends up becoming.

"I was hoping we might be able to reach sort of a consensus or even a unanimous agreement about the language," Daschle said on Wednesday morning. "I think we're wasting more time than we're saving, at this point." Thus, he said, he "made the decision this morning that the best thing to do is just to allow the body to work its will and to offer amendments."

But Lott stepped in and quickly put an end to that. "This very important issue will begin to sink of its own weight" if the other amendments were introduced, Lott said, referring to the unemployment compensation package offered by Sen. Jean Carhanan, D-Mo. There had also been talk of amendments by senators from the Northeast to add additional funding for Amtrak, to both shore up its security and provide increased funding to help it deal with its own post-9/11 10 percent increase in business.

Daschle disagreed with the tactic, calling the issue of airline security an "emergency that dictates we come to the floor this afternoon."

But Lott, a GOP aide later explained, wanted to at least delay debate over the Hollings-McCain bill until after Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta came to the Senate at 3 p.m. to plead the White House's case.

Federalizing security personnel seems to be the consensus desire of a majority of the House and Senate, according to supporters of the move. But the Bush administration and the GOP congressional leadership instead favor having the federal government hire, manage, supervise, train and review private security contractors. Before, the GOP aide said, airlines were put in charge of hiring contractors, and they considered cost above all other factors. Now the federal government would do so, and efficiency would be more important.

"The president has 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," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said on Tuesday.

But many Democrats blame the private sector for its Sept. 11 failings. "It is time to end the subcontracting out of this country's national security," declared Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Negotiations on this issue in the House stalled even the drafting of a bill on airport security on Tuesday, when Democrats and Republicans on the Transportation Committee reached an impasse over the federalization of security workers. According to an aide to Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the committee, the costs would be somewhere between $1 billion and $1.5 billion a year, and would be offset by a $2.50 surcharge on each airline ticket. But Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee, said that for him and other Republicans, the proposal came down to "27,000 new federal bureaucrats vs. a sound process."

Presumably trying to avoid such an impasse, Mineta met with a group of senators most involved with drafting the legislation for about three and a half hours, and they seemed to arrive at a compromise on the issue of the need for a transition period. As a GOP leadership aide later put it, they didn't want to be in a position of quickly "hiring over incompetent people, getting them into the federal workforce, and then having to go through all the issues to get them out."

The compromise on the transition period was being drafted Wednesday night and would be presented to the group at 9 a.m. on Thursday. But there was no agreement on the larger issue of the federalization of airport security personnel. Mineta presented a compromise that would allow him to make an airport-by-airport determination about whether contract or federal personnel would best fit that airport.

"Give us the authority and the flexibility to decide what is the best way to go about it," Mineta said at the meeting, according to the GOP aide. But supporters of the Hollings-McCain bill did not agree.

"I think we are defining some of our differences as well as areas of agreement," McCain later said on the Senate floor.

He added, "I don't think we should allow any peripheral issues." When last contacted, Daschle aides said that their boss had not yet made a decision about the amendment process should the bill come up for debate on Thursday.

If the Senate can't get its act together, McCain vaguely threatened Wednesday afternoon, there were ways to get around these problems. "I hope we would not have to employ any parliamentary procedures to do what we know is necessary," McCain said.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------