President Bush met with Congressional leaders Wednesday to work out differences on measures to increase airport security. Congressional Democrats and the President disagree about whether airport baggage inspectors should be government employees.
President Bush wants what he calls "flexible" legislation that keeps airport baggage inspectors as private employees with strict federal oversight. Congressional Democrats want inspectors to work directly for the government to improve their standards of service. Republicans say making them federal employees would make it harder to fire inspectors who are not up to standard.
Democratic Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said it is a difference that will go to a vote in the House before the end of the week. "Everyone wants to do the right thing," he said. "I think everybody wants to increase airline security. We feel that making them federal law enforcement officials is an important step to take. There is a disagreement about that. We feel we need to take care of the employees who are unemployed. We need to do something about health insurance, unemployment compensation."
Mr. Gephardt said federal baggage inspectors would be better trained, better paid, and thus provide more security than private contractors. It is not a difference, he said, that will prevent lawmakers from getting a bill to the president. "I think the main thing is that we get this done," he said. "People want security on airlines, and if we let another day go by without taking a big step in this direction, I think we have made a big mistake."
The Democratic bill in the Senate and the Republican bill in the House share many of the same plans to increase the number of armed air marshalls and strengthen cockpit doors. They are both modeled on the president's plan to provide $500 million in grants to finance safety modifications to airliners, including video cameras in the cabin to show pilots what is happening behind them and new transponders that can not be turned-off by attackers who want to make the plane invisible to air traffic controllers.
Federal officers will maintain all securitiy equipment and conduct background checks on security personnel. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott supports the president's plan to keep those inspectors as private employees, but he said Senate Republicans agreed to support the Democratic plan federalizing those workers, so the legislation would get to the president's desk for signature more quickly. "I think the important thing on the aviation security bill is that we get through the process and we get it done," he said. "In the Senate, I had serious problems with the product that came out of the Senate. I am more inclined to support the Young Bill, the House position, but I voted for it, as did every Senator even though we might have some problems with various aspects of it, because we thought we should move it on through the process and get a result."
In the meantime, until the new measure are put in place, troops from the U.S. National Guard have taken up positions at major airports to provide extra security.