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Late changes to aviation bill target GOP votes

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If House Republicans succeed in passing their version of the aviation security bill Thursday, they may owe their victory to an amendment added at the 11th hour.

The amendment would limit the financial liability for airport security firms, airplane and steel manufacturers, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and others who might be sued by victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Democrats have criticized the provision because it would limit the liability of all companies, including those that currently screen baggage at airports

Airport security is on the minds of many lawmakers, but Congress is divided on how best to proceed. CNN's Kate Snow reports (November 1)

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The measure, which won a strong endorsement Thursday from New York Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was added to entice wavering New York Republicans. Many are moderates who otherwise might have voted against the bill President Bush has lobbied hard to pass, according to members and staff from both parties.

In a letter sent to the 31 New York lawmakers, 12 of whom are Republican, Giuliani said the amendment would help New York "tremendously" by limiting the recovery of damages related to the hijackings and subsequent crashes to the amount of insurance that a defendant had before September 11.

"Any substitute would fail to provide the city the fiscal protection it needs from potentially limitless lawsuits," he wrote.

A similar provision designed to protect American Airlines and United Airlines -- whose jets were hijacked -- was signed into law as part of a financial assistance package for all the airlines grounded in the wake of the attacks.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, complained the provision will protect airport security firms from liability despite their record of poor performance.

"You have got to remember, these are companies that have been fined in some cases over a million dollars for their errors and omissions. These are companies that were indicted after September 11, again for their failure," Gephardt said.

"So instead of trying to hold them accountable for what they have done wrong, it seems that some in the Republican leadership want to exempt them from any accountability in the legal system for what they have done wrong."

But moderate Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert said the amendment helped him decide to support the GOP bill. He met with President Bush and other undecided Republicans at the White House Thursday morning.

Other provisions that made it into the bill to win the votes of various members include an amendment to allow musicians to a carry their instruments aboard planes instead of requiring they check them into cargo holds; and a measure that allows air carriers to transport animals that are being shipped by the U.S. Postal Service.

One controversial item that was dropped from the bill would have eased restrictions on pay to airline executives. Those restrictions were part of the financial aid package for airlines passed in September. An effort to ease those curbs met fierce opposition from members of both parties and was dropped Thursday morning.

CNN Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl contributed to this report


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