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Lawmakers reach deal on airport security

Under a tentative deal reached Thursday, the federal government would take immediate responsibility for oversight of airport screeners.
Under a tentative deal reached Thursday, the federal government would take immediate responsibility for oversight of airport screeners.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than two months after the airliner attacks of September 11, congressional negotiators and the White House reached agreement Thursday on an aviation security bill. The compromise legislation is expected to go to the White House by week's end.

"We have a deal," a senior administration official told CNN. "It's a good bill. It's done." President Bush is expected to release a statement later Thursday praising Congress' bipartisan effort and describing the final product as a solid melding of divergent House and Senate bills.

Earlier in the afternoon, the deal was approved by both the Republican and Democrat leadership in the Senate and the House.

"It's a victory for both sides" said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who called it a "good agreement." Lott predicted the aviation security bill would "pass overwhelmingly in both bodies" by Friday evening.

The agreement is an attempt to bridge the gap between two competing bills that passed the House and the Senate. The Senate bill called for federal employees to handle security screening at the nation's largest airports. The House bill, supported by Bush, called for federal oversight of security screening with the option of using private contractors to do the work.

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According to several lawmakers, the deal would require almost all of the nation's airports to put federal employees in charge of security screening for the next three years. After that, individual airports would have the right to opt out of that federal system and request that the screening be handled by private contractors, state or local law enforcement.

The federal employees working at security checkpoints would fall under the Department of Transportation but would not be offered the same civil service protections as other federal employees, according to Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. They would be able to unionize, but not allowed to strike, Mica said. All employees would have to be U.S. citizens.

While most airports would phase in the new federal employees over a nine-month period, a handful of airports would be part of a pilot program involving private security companies.

The pilot program is meant to test the effectiveness of using privately contracted screeners supervised by a federal agent. The program would be in place at five airports nationwide. One airport from each of five size categories -- from the smallest airports to the largest -- would be chosen for the test program.

Chief of Staff Andrew Card, a former transportation secretary, and Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta led the White House lobbying effort. Though the White House did not prevail upon Congress to grant it complete flexibility on the hiring of airport security workers, the senior official said the compromise is acceptable.

Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., said the new system is meant to provide uniform standards for security screeners at airports. "They'd be accountable to the federal system, federal standards," Kerry said. "It would all be the same system no matter who the workers are employed by."

"This is a victory for everyone who flies," said Senator John Breaux, D-La., "to know we have a safe system in place that is 100 percent better than the past."

One senior Democratic aide described the potential deal as a "huge victory for federalization and a token gesture for privatization."

"For us it's a big victory because you're talking about five airports in the whole country not being federalized," the aide said. "Security companies may not be able to survive on only five airports."

But the compromise is meant to give something to House Republicans and the White House also by providing airports the flexibility to use private contractors in the future.

"It does give the president the flexibility and the local airports the flexibility to do what's right," said House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas.

Lott said Republicans were always for a federalized system, and were just opposed to making airport workers government employees. He said that although he believes this deal allows too much time -- three years -- for screeners and baggage handlers to work for the federal government, he is going along with it "in order to get this bill done."

To pay for the enhanced security at airports, passengers would have to pay a new fee, according to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. The fee would be $2.50 per leg with a maximum fee of $5 per one-way airline trip.

A new federal agency called the Transportation Safety Administration would be created in the Department of Transportation in order to oversee and administer the federalized security program.

-- From CNN Congressional Correspondent Kate Snow, White House Correspondent Major Garrett and Producers Dana Bash and Ted Barrett


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