- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

The House approved a bill last night that would leave aviation security to private contractors working under tougher government oversight, giving a major victory to President Bush and his Republican allies.
Minutes earlier, the House rejected a Democrat-backed bill that would have turned the nation's airport screeners and other aviation security personnel into federal employees.
"I commend the House for passing legislation that will help ensure the safety of the traveling public by strengthening security at America's airports," Mr. Bush said in a statement after the vote passed last night by a 286-139 margin.
Mr. Bush lobbied lawmakers yesterday for this version of the bill, which gives the president the discretion of making the airport screeners either federal agents or employees of private security companies.
The 218-214 vote against the Democratic alternative followed tough last-minute negotiating by the White House and congressional Republicans. Democrats said federalization would make airport security into a more professional law enforcement operation.
Except for federalizing the security force, the two bills had most of the same key provisions. Both required reinforced cockpit doors, air marshals on commercial flights, thorough background checks for security personnel and inspection of all carry-on and checked baggage.
The federalization issue applies primarily to screeners, the personnel who check baggage and people as they pass through airport security checkpoints. The bill passed last night will allow airlines to continue contracting out security to private companies.
The same bill preferred by the Democrats passed unanimously in the Senate on Oct. 11. Differences in the Senate and any House version must be resolved in a conference committee before being submitted to Mr. Bush.
Republicans have said federalizing aviation security would take at least a year to implement fully. Democrats said it would take only two to three months.
"We must put security in the hands of law-enforcement officers," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a key advocate for federalization.
During the debate yesterday, the Missouri Democrat asked his fellow congressmen, "Do you want to contract out the Capitol Police? Do you want to contract out the U.S. Marines? Do you want to contract out the FBI and the Customs Service? I don't think so."
Mr. Gephardt denounced the votes afterward as "disappointing" and said he would "urge the conferees to strip out the special-interest provisions and send the Senate bill to the president."
The close vote followed a weeks-long debate that pitted Republican arguments favoring private enterprise against Democratic arguments of government responsibility.
The victorious bill was sponsored by Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican. It also would require tougher screening of employees, additional job training, higher pay scales and more government oversight of standards.
Democrats said airlines give the contracts for private security firms to the lowest bidders, resulting in airport screeners who are underpaid, poorly trained and have high turnover. The screeners are often immigrants.
Recently, private security guards at Philadelphia International Airport were found to have criminal records. Seven of 20 screeners at Washington Dulles International Airport failed a recent pop quiz by the Federal Aviation Administration on their job responsibilities.
Mr. Bush has said that with proper government oversight, private employers could keep standards higher because they have greater discretion to fire employees for poor performance than federal employees.
Mr. Bush's supporters included House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.
"I support legislation that will give President Bush the flexibility to create an airport-security work force that meets the needs of our citizens," Mr. Hastert said.
As the vote approached, Republicans added amendments intended to win votes.
One amendment limits the liability of private companies such as aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. and the owners of the World Trade Center to no more than their insurance coverage.
Lawyers' fees would be limited to no more than 20 percent of the damages award.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman, said some companies could be driven out of business without liability limits.
"No bank will lend them money because of contingency liability issues," he said.
However, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, denounced the limits as too broad.
"This would apply to everyone else as well, limiting liability for an airport-security company that allowed terrorists to get on a plane with box cutters on September 11," Mr. Conyers said in a statement.


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