How'd Bush do it?

The GOP's airport safety bill passed the House, but how? Conspiracy theories abound -- including one swiped from this week's "West Wing."

Published November 3, 2001 10:46PM (EST)

On Thursday evening, Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, looked up at the vote board and knew that there was no way he was going to win.

The main difference between Ganske's airport security bill and the one favored by the White House and the GOP leadership was that his stipulated that the nation's 28,000 airport security workers should become federal employees, and theirs didn't. A version of his bill had swept through the Senate 100-0 on Oct. 11.

Numerically speaking, his bill seemed guaranteed to win -- it had the support of all but three members of the House Democratic caucus, and 15 GOP cosponsors. But that support suddenly evaporated -- and why it did is a mystery no one has been able to solve. A variety of conspiracy theories have floated around the Capitol -- some probably true, some just plain silly. In a time of shifting alliances and high-pressure politics, it's hard to tell which is which.

Ganske knew that the vote was going to be close. After all, the House GOP leadership had delayed a vote on the bill he was offering with Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., so as to shore up opposition to it. They waited until Wednesday to vote on it. And then they pushed it to Thursday. And then they pushed it to Thursday night.

He knew that the White House and the House GOP leadership were putting, as he later described it, "absolutely intense pressure" on the 15 GOP cosponsors of his bill. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., had been phoned on the way to work that morning by the president himself. She had been invited to the White House. Plus, "she had been brought to the woodshed by [House Speaker] Denny Hastert," R-Ill., Ganske said. "But she stuck with us."

Seven of the 15 GOP cosponsors didn't. But Ganske always knew that a number of his Republican cosponsors would jump ship. Still, victory remained possible -- until he learned that six Democrats were voting against it. Six! Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., had said that they would lose three Democrats at the most.

Ganske knew right then his bill wasn't going to pass. And it didn't, failing 218-214.

Ganske's bill, supported by the Democratic leadership of the House and a handful of moderate Republicans, would have federalized all airport security personnel and put them under the supervision of the attorney general. The rival bill, sponsored by Transportation Committee chairman Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, supported by the White House and the House GOP leadership, kept airport security in the hands of private contractors, but had the federal government supervise the process, through the Department of Transportation. After the Ganske-Andrews bill was defeated, the Young bill passed the House 286-139.

How'd the Republicans do it? According to Hastert spokesman John Feehery, the victory came because Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, "did a magnificent whip job. And the speaker was very helpful in the process. And the president made a key difference. People voted for this because they were voting for the president. It was just an all-around team effort."

But hours before the vote was taken, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Senate Republican sponsor of the defeated bill, said he heard that his opponents were "out there just buying votes."

"The bazaar was open," Gephardt spokesman Erik Smith said of the deals being cut to secure votes on both sides of the aisle. "The casbah was active. If anything, we're proud of the fact so many Democrats said no."

Democrats expected to lose three votes from their caucus - Reps. Tony Hall and Jim Traficant of Ohio, and Robert "Bud" Cramer of Alabama. But they lost six votes instead -- those three plus Reps. Rod Blagojevich and Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, and Solomon Ortiz of Texas.

Blagojevich acknowledged that he received "a phone call from one of the Republican leaders, who shall remain nameless, and he started offering me stuff. But I didn't want to do that. This wasn't about horse-trading, bartering, or pork barrel projects for my district." He had spent Thursday reviewing both bills on their merits, and the Republican version, he felt, best resembled the model of airport safety employed by Israel, "which has a proven track record of success."

Though supporters of the Young bill have consistently argued that Israel's El Al Airlines abides by the public-private partnership they desired, such does not appear to be the case. According to El Al's chief security officer, Tsahi Stromza, "In principle, all security personnel in airline and airport security in Israel and abroad are employed by the Israeli government. There are a few exceptions in El Al stations outside of Israel, where it is difficult to employ local Israelis. In Israel, security personnel are employed by the Israel airport authority, which is a governmental organization." Of El Al's thousand-person security forces, 75 or so are privately contracted to man the X-ray machines screening the hand-held luggage before boarding.

A member of Congress who requested anonymity repeated "scuttlebutt" he'd heard about why Blagojevich voted for the GOP bill -- a story that seemed to mirror a plot twist from Wednesday's episode of "The West Wing." On that show, Democratic President Josiah Bartlet secured a moderate GOP congressman's vote in exchange for the promise that the Democratic Party wouldn't mount a serious challenge to his reelection bid. The C-SPANish version of this NBC tale had Blagojevich agreeing to support the Republican leadership's bill in exchange for a promise that his fellow Illinois colleague, Speaker Hastert, wouldn't actively campaign against him during Blagojevich's gubernatorial bid next year.

"That's laughable," Blagojevich said when asked about the theory, insisting "Hastert will work very hard for whomever the Republican candidate is next year." For Blagojevich, the Republican bill was simply better. "The system designed here doesn't encourage independent thought, so it's surprising when a person makes a decision based on its merits." Hastert spokesman Feehery also called the theory "laughable," noting that Blagojevich faces a competitive primary before he even secures the gubernatorial Democratic nomination. He did say that Hastert worked hard to get the Young bill passed and "the fact that two Illinois Democrats voted for the bill is something you can't overlook."

One knowledgeable House Democratic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested another possible reason for Blagojevich's defection. Blagojevich had told the Democratic leaders that he was on board, the source said, but had changed his vote perhaps in an attempt to get the Democratic gubernatorial primary endorsement of the Service Employees International Union, which supported the Republican bill in deference to its members who worked for private security firms. "In a 4- or 5-way primary in Illinois, that's probably a good deal," the source said.

Blagojevich dismissed any reason for his vote other than the merits of the GOP bill, however, and theorized that the conspiracy theories came from "some Democrats in the whip chain who dropped the ball, and now they gotta answer to their leaders."

Still, reports of political payoffs persisted. The House source alleged that a housing project in Gutierrez's district is now slated to be added to the appropriations bill for the Veterans Administration Housing and Urban Development Department.

But Gutierrez spokesman Billy Weinberg denied that his boss voted against the Ganske-Andrews bill for any reason other than principle and insisted he got nothing in return for his vote. He voted against both airport security bills, Weinberg says, because both prohibited non-citizens from working in security. "For the past six weeks he's been willing to go along -- to a certain extent -- with new provisions that allow detentions for a week by the INS without charges, but finally the congressman felt that enough was enough."

The Ganske-Andrews bill would have required that security screeners not only be citizens, but have been citizens for at least five years. "The congressman wants to federalize airport screeners," Weinberg says, "but the congressman has something of a zero tolerance policy when it comes to singling out immigrants unfairly."

The House source, however, said that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas and vice chairwoman of the Commerce Committee's subcommittee on aviation, had reached out to the House Hispanic Caucus to assure them that they would change this provision before sending the bill to the president. Thus 16 of the 18 members of the caucus supported the Ganske-Andrews bill. The source said that that Ortiz was able to secure "two defense appropriations projects he'd been trying to get through, plus the president committed to building Interstate-69 through his district." An Ortiz spokesman did not return a call for comment.

There were other additions to the Young bill presumably to help garner support for it. One provision will shield entities like the New York Port Authority from lawsuits stemming from the Sept. 11 attack, a move New York Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani had been pushing for.

"They put in a liability provision for the World Trade Center for the New York guys," McCain said. Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., for instance, a cosponsor of the Ganske-Andrews bill, ended up voting for the Young bill. McCain also mentioned another additional plank, one that removed the provision from the $15 billion airline bailout that would have capped the salaries and benefits of airline executives.

When the Senate passed its version of the Ganske-Andrews bill 100-0, McCain and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., had worked to keep irrelevant amendments, however worthy, from being attached to their bill so as to ensure its passage. They likewise worked out some of the problems Republicans had with the idea of adding 28,000 new federal employees -- by denying such workers the same worker protections afforded other federal employees, for instance.

So as to expedite the legislative process, Ganske and Andrews soon announced that they would take the amended Hollings-McCain Senate bill and introduce it as their own. If Ganske-Andrews had passed, it could go directly to Bush's desk, they argued, whereas the GOP bill would require a lengthy and arduous conference committee process.

Now that seems assured, McCain says. "The addition of these provisions to the airport security measure" in the House bill is going to make things tough in conference committee, McCain said. "One of the problems, when we go to conference, is that the reason we got 100-0 is we agreed on no extraneous amendments. Even if they were virtuous."

Even if it was a proposal for more money to fund greater security for Amtrak, Hollings and McCain would turn it down. Only measures having to do with aviation security would be accepted. But in the House "they put all this extraneous stuff into their bill to buy these votes. There's no way I can ever support that. The amendments we were blocking had virtue. The amendments they're stuffing in are just by K Street lobbyists to get them their votes."

On Friday, Hastert urged the conference committee to meet "as soon as possible next week to start the process of reconciling these two approaches."

On this, if nothing else, Ganske agreed with his leader. "If that conference doesn't get this done quickly, it will be like Nero fiddling while Rome burns."

By Jake Tapper

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

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