Securing the Skies
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KWAME HOLMAN: Lobbyists for companies that employ airport baggage screeners made final arguments to members of the House of Representatives today, hoping to persuade them to vote against replacing such workers with federal employees. That was the linchpin issue as the House took up sweeping aviation security legislation. On their way to a procedural vote this afternoon, three members exemplified how close the main vote was expected to be. Republican Ben Gilman wasn’t sure if he’d vote with President Bush and House Republicans and keep screeners privately- employed but federally supervised.
SPOKESMAN: I’m still looking it over. We met with the President earlier today and I raised some questions, I’m waiting for answers on it.
REPORTER: Are you still undecided?
SPOKESMAN: Still undecided.
KWAME HOLMAN: Joe Crowley, like most Democrats, supports a federal force of screeners.
JOE CROWLEY: Well I’m supporting the Democratic proposal and the Senate bill. 100 Senators voted it unanimously, 49 members of the Republican Party. It’s a bipartisan bill and I don’t know why we can’t get that passed in the House.
KWAME HOLMAN: Jim Demint is a Republican.
JIM DEMINT: Our bill just gives the President the flexibility to add federal employees, local police, private security, and most of all the ability to hire and fire firms that aren’t doing it right.
KWAME HOLMAN: House Republican leaders delayed until today a vote on aviation security while they rounded up support for keeping airport screeners employed by private contractors. That issue aside, a large bipartisan majority in the House agrees with the main principles of strengthening aviation security passed unanimously by the Senate three weeks ago. The provisions include: Imposing new airline ticket fees to fund security upgrades, such as cockpit doors only flight crews can open; enough federal air marshals to put one aboard every commercial flight; mandatory anti-hijacking training for flight personnel; and federally- employed screeners at security checkpoints under the authority of the Justice Department. The 28,000 screeners at the nation’s airports work for private companies hired by the airlines and have been criticized for on-going security lapses. The screeners’ pay is low, the jobs have few benefits and turnover is staggeringly high. Some were found to have criminal records. Democrats say the House Republicans’ plan to provide them with better training, better pay and strict federal supervision won’t do.
SPOKESMAN: Republican leadership has chosen to rename and dress up the existing failing system. They call it the Airport Security Federalization Act. They are going to require that the private security firms dress up their employees in federal looking uniforms with federal looking badges. They even say that they will be deputized but given no law enforcement powers. Now how is that a change? The same companies that are failing us today and have failed us for 30 years will still be running airport security. So we have a choice here. We can dress up and make it feel better to have private security firms instead of armed federal law enforcement agents providing the security to the traveling public needs, or we can have armed federal law enforcement agents providing for the security the traveling public needs, I think the choice is clear.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans argued their approach is better.
SPOKESMAN: Please don’t come before the Congress and the American people to tell them we’re protecting those private screening companies that are now doing the job. We take this responsibility away from the airlines; we make it a federal responsibility. It is federally managed. It is federally supervised. There are federal background checks, there’s federal testing and most importantly there is federal oversight. The Israelis, the Europeans tried the “federalize all public employees” method and what did they? They eventually evolved into a public/private partnership where the government sets the high standards. And that is what we’ve proposed.
KWAME HOLMAN: Things got off to a slow start in today’s floor debate as Republicans leaders continued to work to secure the votes to pass their version of aviation security. At one point, the House clerk spent 25 minutes reading the main Republican bill.
SPOKESMAN: Page one, line 6 — strike Secure Transportation for America Act of 2001 and insert –
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats hoped a provision in the Republican bill exempting some companies from legal liability arising from the terrorist attacks would cost them votes.
SPOKESMAN: I mean, imagine the brazen special interest coming forward. There is a provision that was put in to exempt Boeing from liability. Boeing is in my town. Half of Boeing is in St. Louis. That was to I guess get the Boeing people up here lobbying for the bill. That has no place in this bill. If Boeing needs to be made knot liable for some good reason we can do it in another bill. I’m shocked at the special interest coming forward. This is the hog’s at the trough.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Republicans modified that provision and dropped another controversial one. Votes are expected into tonight and late this evening, it still as too close to call as to which bill would pass.