Senate stalled on airline security measure
Bush administration offers compromise
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After a stalled Democratic attempt to bring an airline security bill to the Senate floor Wednesday, the Bush administration offered a proposal that would compromise on the issue of making airport security screeners federal employees, CNN learned.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, tried to bring up the bill after leaders of the Senate and the White House were unable to reach agreement, saying the only way to proceed was to "hear out the other ideas" in a floor debate.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, objected, and the bill stalled.
Afterward, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta met with a key senators on both sides of the aisle.
According to information obtained by CNN from a senior Republican aide, Mineta offered a new proposal that would put the federal government in charge of security screening but would not necessarily make all workers doing the screening federal agents.
Under the plan, after a transitional period of 18 months, the secretary of transportation would make an airport-by-airport determination on whether to make the existing security screeners federal employees or to contract the work out.
The administration argues, based on documents CNN obtained, that this would make the process of transitioning to federal control much easier than simply switching control to a new federal agency.
Using contract employees at some airports, the administration argues, would also "preserve greater flexibility for the federal government to impose standards and to discipline or remove screeners who are not performing up to expectations."
The president and leaders on both sides of the aisle have been pressing for an airline security bill to reassure Americans that air travel is safe. All sides want more federal air marshals, enhanced security and protections in airplane cockpits. But the details have proved difficult.
While Democrats want to make screeners federal employees to ensure quality, many Republicans fear doing so would create a new government bureaucracy.
Two senior administration officials said President Bush wants to avoid a system in which all security personnel and airport passenger screeners are civil servants.
"We're moving in the direction of a compromise," said a senior White House official.
The official also signaled that Republicans who oppose any federalization of airport security personnel are likely to be disappointed.
"Some people don't like bipartisanship," the official said. "And we know some people are gong to squawk. When you're pursuing a broad consensus, not everyone is going to be pleased."
One House GOP leader said Republicans in the House were frustrated by the administration's "ambivalence" on the issue of federalizing screeners.
"Would you want the kind of federal employees who can't even run the U.S. post offices around the country running your airport security?" the Republican asked rhetorically.
Some federal role may be inevitable.
In fact, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, who met with Mineta along with Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, Fritz Hollings, D-South Carolina, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said they agree that federalization of workers would happen.
"From our side of the table, there was absolute unanimity on federalization, and we're going to write the law," Rockefeller told CNN. "'Federalize' is no longer a bad word; it means people will get on airplanes." Mineta plans to return to Capitol Hill for another meeting Thursday morning.
Another issue being discussed is aid for laid-off airline workers. Democrats are pushing for such aid to be a part of this bill, while Republicans want it left until later.
"For the sake of getting this done, I would plead again to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle: Let's find a way to get an agreement to do aviation security. And then find a way to do these other issues that are all so important," Lott said.
-- CNN's Kate Snow, Dana Bash and Major Garrett contributed to this report.
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