- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

President Bush yesterday endorsed a plan by House Republicans to allow private contractors to continue screening bags at airports, two weeks after the Senate unanimously passed legislation that would make screeners government employees.
"The quickest, most effective way to increase aviation security is to pass H.R. 3150," the House Republican bill, Mr. Bush wrote in a letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.
Federalizing the nation's 28,000 airport screeners has been a sticking point for House Democrats and Republicans since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The Democrats say making the workers into government employees will improve the quality of screening services, but Republicans oppose expanding the federal work force.
The president's letter seemed to leave room for compromise. Mr. Bush wrote that he would work with Congress on any "refinements [to the legislation] that may be necessary."
At a press conference with House Republican leaders, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said he is confident Congress will send the president a bill that Mr. Bush will feel comfortable supporting.
"I don't think the president will be put in the position of vetoing an aviation security bill," he said.
Asked if the nation's aviation security was being imperiled as Congress continues to debate the measure, Mr. Mineta responded "absolutely."
A survey released yesterday by consumers' travel group AAA seemed to suggest Americans agree. The poll of 1,008 randomly selected adults found 70 percent of respondents have strong concerns about the quality of luggage and aircraft inspections, and only 36 percent feel highly confident about current overall aviation safety measures.
House Republicans said they will bring their bill to the floor for a vote Wednesday.
The House Republicans' legislation puts the government in charge of overseeing, but not employing, airport security workers.The bill creates an agency within the federal Transportation Department to supervise and train all workers that private contractors hire to be baggage and passenger screeners. The new agency would also conduct background checks on screeners and other airline security workers.
The Senate unanimously passed legislation Oct. 11 that would make the nation's aviation security workers federal employees. The Senate bill allows small airports to use local law enforcement officers as screeners, however.
White House officials had previously indicated their support for the House Republicans' plan, but the president's letter marked the first time he has put his position in writing.
"Giving the government the flexibility to use private contractors will … promote better screening services through competition and ensure that security managers can move swiftly to discipline or remove employees who fail to live up to the rigorous new standards," Mr. Bush wrote.
The Air Transport Association, a trade group for the airline industry, has urged the government to take over the supervision of aviation security workers. The group does not have a position on whether the workers should be government employees.
"It makes no difference to us. We just want to be out of the law enforcement business so we can focus on the air transportation of passengers and cargo," said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the group.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, said voters don't view the aviation security bill as a partisan matter, and predicted congressional Demo-crats and Republicans will both suffer if a bill isn't passed soon.
"People will be frustrated and disappointed that their government their representative government is not acting to solve this major problem that we all have," he said.

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