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US Congress Tackles Airline Security - 2001-11-08

At the U.S. Congress, House and Senate negotiators have begun work to resolve differences in aviation security legislation, passed by both chambers. Both bills call for deploying more air marshals on airliners and bolstering cockpit doors. Where they differ is whether airport baggage screeners should be federal employees. Finding a compromise could be difficult.

At a news conference Wednesday, comments by members of the joint conference committee suggested no one is in the mood to make concessions on the issue of federalizing baggage inspectors.

Senators who last month unanimously voted to require such inspectors be federal employees, like customs and immigration agents stood their ground. They argued that recent security breaches at airports in which passengers managed to get guns past screeners highlights the need to get rid of the current system of using private contractors to inspect bags.

"They are not doing the job," said republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. "Anybody who believes that they are I think is not aware of the incidents that have taken place some more serious than others."

But House Republicans, whose chamber overwhelmingly rejected federalization last week, also suggested they are not eager to compromise. Congressman Don Young is chairman of the Transportation Committee.

"You well know I cannot accept the Senate bill of 100 percent federalization. That is not the House direction," he said.

The House bill would keep baggage inspectors in the private sector, under stricter federal oversight, while giving President Bush the option of making them federal employees.

But the chairman of the conference committee, Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, does not believe that is a good idea.

"If I were the President, I would not want any flexibility, or options, or anything like that," Senator Hollings said. " I would want it so that you all would be just demanding that I do it, and if anything happened in the next three years before my re-election, we all would be responsible. That is the environment I am trying to develop, so that we will all start working together."

House Republicans, such as Congressman John Mica of Florida, say they oppose creating another bureaucracy, which they believe the Senate bill would do.

"Do the American people want a huge bureaucracy, or do they want aviation security? That is really the question at hand," Congressman Mica said.

The one area where lawmakers agree is that they would like to complete their work and send a final bill to President Bush before they break for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday at the end of next week. Few are confident that that will happen.