- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

Republican senators are preparing for a fight this week over a provision of a homeland security bill that would give union rights to aviation security screeners employed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The Senate will debate the Improving America’s Security Act this week, and the Republicans want to remove from the bill language that would give screeners collective bargaining rights. The senators said they will call on President Bush to veto the bill if they fail.

“Forcing collective bargaining on TSA will be an operational and homeland-security disaster,” Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said yesterday. “I hope the Democrats will remove this misguided provision before we have to fight it out on the floor.”

Draft letters calling on Mr. Bush to veto the law if the provision makes it into the statute were circulating on Capitol Hill, labor lobbyists and congressional staff said.

DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said he could not comment on draft correspondence, but he confirmed that the senator thinks the law should be vetoed if the provision passes.

“TSA screeners already have the right to join a union and have multiple layers of workplace protections,” Mr. DeMint said.

Labor unions say the provision ensures that the screeners have the same rights as other federal employees. They added that the high turnover and low morale at the agency are products of the failure of current law to ensure adequate staff representation at the decision-making table.

At the center of the looming battle, which echoes a 2002 Senate showdown over labor rights and homeland security, is an amendment proposed by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent caucusing with the Democrats.

The amendment passed on a party-line vote in his committee and is incorporated in the bill, one of a clutch of security bills the Democratic leadership hopes to roll together on the Senate floor over the next two weeks.

Mr. Lieberman will be the floor manager for the debate, which both emphasizes the leverage he has as a potential defector in a 49-51 Senate and is likely to crystallize his distance from the Democrats on Iraq, if, as expected, there are efforts to make the bill a vehicle for opposition to the president’s policy there.

Mr. Lieberman’s amendment repeals a footnote in the 2001 law setting up the TSA. The footnote gave the agency’s director wide discretion to decide issues of union and other labor rights for the thousands of passenger and baggage screeners it employs.

That discretion is essential to enable the TSA to perform its mission, the administration said in reference to a similar measure in a House version of the security bill.

“This measure seeks to reverse the flexibility given to TSA to perform its critical aviation security mission,” wrote the Office of Management and Budget, adding that it would “substantially diminish” officials’ ability to respond to emergencies like the discovery last summer of a plot in London to bomb U.S.-bound airliners with liquid explosives.

Unions accuse the administration of scaremongering.

“There has never been a single case of union contracts preventing an emergency deployment of federal employees,” said Charity Wilson, a congressional lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees.

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