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Lawmakers consider airport security compromise

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Despite intensified efforts to move an airport security bill, the Bush White House remains pessimistic about a swift resolution of the issue that has divided lawmakers all along: the status of front-line security screeners.

"Things have pretty much stalled," a senior administration official told CNN after a day of negotiations. "The new proposals have not moved the situation forward very much."

The official said the White House was encouraged by Congress' commitment to pass an airline security bill before leaving Washington for the Thanksgiving break, but as yet did not see a route to compromise.

Another senior administration official said the president is growing "impatient" with congressional delays.

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"There's no apparent urgency in moving a bill," the official said. "There has been an effort to forge some common ground and that has not worked with some folks. The president's getting impatient and he doesn't want to fool around waiting for Congress. We need to find a compromise and nobody wants to."

The official said Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., chairman of the Commerce Committee, rejected the latest effort to break the logjam -- a proposal that the administration official said would allow a Federal Security Manager assigned to each airport to determine the best security arrangement and decide whether to employ private, federally employed security workers, or local law enforcement personnel.

The idea is the brainchild of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and was offered in the House-Senate negotiations by Rep.Don Young, R-Alaska, who authored the House bill that provides President Bush with the flexibility to determine if security workers should be employed by the federal government or private contractors.

The White House has yet to fully endorse the Lott initiative but saw it as a solid basis of new negotiations, the official said. The bottom line for the White House remains flexibility on the security screener issue. "We're OK as long as the bill doesn't require full federalization," the official said.

Under the Lott plan, each airport would have a Federal Security Manager who would work with the local airport authority and a new undersecretary at the Department of Transportation to study to security needs of that particular airport.

After determining the best plan, the Federal Security Manager would have considerable influence in deciding the composition of the workforce but would have to confer with local and federal authorities before a final plan could be executed.

Lott met with Hollings to discuss the proposal Wednesday morning.

Details still vague

According to Democratic and Republican sources, the proposal now being discussed would put federal employees at security screening checkpoints at all the nation's airports.

However, there would also be a way for individual airports to opt out of having federal employees do the job. Instead, airports could choose to have local law enforcement agents work as security screeners or contract the work to private companies.

"The federal government would still set the standards, still manage and still supervise," said Sen. John Breaux, D-La. "It will allow us to get a bill by the end of this week."

But the precise details of any deal on airport security are still vague. Key questions include: How many airports would be allowed to opt out of a federal employee structure? What would be the timeframe for opting out? Would large airports be prohibited from opting out?

Lott told CNN the idea behind the plan was to "give us some flexibility for the people on the ground."

As an example, he said an airport in his home state of Mississippi may want a private company to be involved. The proposal would provide "a way for airports to be able to opt out," Lott said.

The proposal is meant to satisfy players on both sides of an increasingly bitter fight over who should be in charge of screening passengers and baggage.

Republicans point to the need for flexibility to use private companies to handle security at airports. But because the proposal would call for federal employees to do the screening unless an airport opts to change that, the proposal might also satisfy many Senate and House Democrats who have supported a completely federal role in security.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he would be inclined to support the measure as outlined.

"That's something I would go for," Daschle said.


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