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Jonathan Karl: The airport security debate on Capitol Hill

Jonathan Karl is CNN's Congressional correspondent.

CNN: Welcome to, Jonathan Karl. It's great to have you with us today.

JONATHAN KARL: Thanks for having me!

CNN: Jonathan, what can you tell us about today's progress of the House debates on the aviation security bill?

KARL: [There is a ] serious showdown in the House of Representatives over aviation security. The vote will be tomorrow. This is one of those few cases when we really don't know where the votes are. It's unclear if the Republicans have enough votes to pass their version, which is a bill that would allow the president to decide if he wants to make those baggage screeners at airports federal employees. What's fascinating about this debate, and it's a really rancorous one, is that the two sides actually agree on 90 percent of the issues. Both the Democratic and Republican bills would put more air marshals on planes, strengthen cockpit doors, and allow pilots to carry guns. They're really hung up over whether to make those 28,000 screeners at the airports federal employees.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What are the pros and cons about federal employees being screeners at airports?

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KARL: Democrats say they should be federal employees for the same reason that FBI agents or secret service are federal employees, to professionalize the system. But when you talk government employees, many Republicans think not of the Secret Service, but of your local Department of Motor Vehicles. They think the president should have the option to allow private companies to do this, under strict federal guidelines. They just think that's more efficient.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What screening methods are being considered for biological agents in airport screening procedures?

KARL: That is not an issue that's specifically addressed in the bill, and it's an excellent question, and one that frankly the experts are still struggling with. Obviously, when you walk through a metal detector, it says nothing about whether you've got a bag full of anthrax in your pocket.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If they were federalized, would they then be unionized and if so would that mean more campaign money for Democrats? Isn't there a political consideration here?

KARL: Great question. Right now, many of those employees are unionized as part of the Service Employees International Union. This union by and large supports Democrats. If they became federal employees, they'd be in a different union, theoretically, the government employee's union (AFSCME). But clearly, this is an issue that troubles Republicans. They want the President and the Federal Aviation Administration to have the maximum flexibility to deal with the hiring and firing, and feel the best way to do that is to use private contracts, not federal employees.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Where are all these "professional" screeners going to come from? Unless these positions involve high salary and benefits, the airports are going to have the same staffing problems that McDonald's and Burger King do.

KARL: Well, everyone agrees, both sides of the debate, that these people need to be paid more. You just can't get first rate security at 8 bucks an hour or less, as is sometimes the case.

CNN: Election Day is next Tuesday. What important races are expected and could any of those races further change the balance of power?

KARL: It's an off-year election, but there are some significant races. There are the big four, mayor's races in New York and in Los Angeles (which the Democrats have already won), and governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia. The polls going into election week show the Democrats are poised to make a clean sweep. Now usually, pundits and political operatives see the off-year election as a sign of what is to come in the next major national election, but this is a much different situation, obviously. The Democrats who win are Democrats that are not criticizing this Republican president.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Jonathan, will there be any kind of ID checking system put into place? Similar to a nationwide system available to law enforcement, which when entered will turn up current info on the ID holder.

KARL: I believe what you're referring to is the question of a national ID system, which is really a separate debate from the airport security bill. National ID has been kicked around for a long time, and many Republicans who have opposed it in the past as an unnecessary extension of government are rethinking it now. It's a renewed debate as of September 11.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How does Congress seem to be functioning in light of the anthrax situation in the congressional offices

KARL: In short, it's a mess. The Hart Senate office building is closed, and will be for at least another two weeks. That is the biggest and most important office building on Capitol Hill, housing more than 50 Senators, and several key committees. It's really been a monumental inconvenience, because not only have Senators and staff been without work space, but they've had no access to the critical papers and files and personal belongings they left behind in the Hart Building. On the House side, the same is true of the Longworth Building, which remains closed. As a matter of fact, before they go about decontaminating Longworth, they are considering opening it up for a few hours to allow staff to go in and get some of their personal belongings out. They left cell phones, pagers, all kinds of important things behind when they were told to evacuate.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?

KARL: One thing to watch up here on Capitol Hill will be a major battle over economic stimulus, or as some call it, economic recovery. The president made it very clear today that he wants Congress to pass additional tax cuts, but only a very minimum amount of new spending. Meanwhile, top Democrats are talking about a twenty-billion dollar plan for spending on infrastructure, they're talking about a major extension of unemployment benefits, of extended health care to those who have been laid off, and the two sides are very far apart. So that will be a major battle in the week ahead.

CNN: Thanks for joining us today, Jonathan Karl.

KARL: Thank you, and enjoy the chat! :)

Jonathan Karl joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the chat which took place on Tuesday, October 31, 2001.


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