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US Lawmakers Divided Over Airport Security - 2001-11-02

The U.S. House of Representatives late Thursday passed, by a 286 to 139 vote, a bill to boost airport and airline security. But after hours of contentious debate, the Republican-led House rejected a Democratic proposal to make airport baggage screeners federal employees, handing a major victory to the Bush administration.

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

The House approved the bill shortly after narrowly rejecting, by a 218 to 214 vote, a Democratic-backed measure that would have required federal law enforcement officers to inspect baggage at the nation's largest airports.

Democrat James Oberstar of Minnesota was a sponsor of that proposl. "We need to have the badge of the federal government, persons sworn to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States, trained to the highest possible level of skill, paid a decent level, put in a security force separate from the federal civil service to give assurance to the American public that the bar on security has been raised," he said.

An aviation security bill that called for federalizing airport baggage screeners unanimously passed the Senate three weeks ago. House and Senate negotiators will now have to reconcile differences in their two versions before a final bill is sent to President Bush.

Mr. Bush had lobbied hard for the House-backed bill a point not lost on Majority Whip Tom Delay. "He was able to convince those members that we needed a system with flexibility to protect the public," he said. "Members refused to tie the President's hands with mandates that came from the Senate bill. There was no flexibility in the Senate bill. You either had to do it their way, or not at all."

The House and Senate bills have much in common. Both call for deploying more air marshals on airliners, securing cockpit doors, and allowing pilots to carry guns if they so choose.