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Democrats: Bush's air security plan falls short

From Kate Snow
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Key House Democrats say President Bush's proposal on airline security doesn't go far enough toward putting the federal government in charge of security screening at airports.

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, said the president's plan to increase the number of armed air marshals and make changes in airplane cockpits were "commendable," but he criticized Bush for failing to call specifically for federal employees to handle security screening.

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"This nation has been at war," Oberstar said. "Airlines are the front line of that war. We wouldn't think of contracting out our army to protect us against an open foreign invasion. We shouldn't think of contracting out responsibility of defending the internal United States against covert attacks."

Oberstar said the White House plan "would not be a step forward. At best it would be a step sideways."

President Bush said Thursday he would "work with Congress to put the federal government in charge of passenger and bag screening." He talked of setting tougher, consistent standards for security screening but stopped short of calling for actual federal employees to do that screening.

A senior administration official said the president's proposal would allow the federal government to contract the work to private firms. The government would do background checks and train and supervise the workers, but the workers would not officially be federal government employees.

The administration official said that approach would give the federal government "much more flexibility in terms of hiring and firing" employees.

But Oberstar and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) said the administration instead should hire federal employees to handle security screening and pay them a "professional wage."

DeFazio argued that federal officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. Customs Service already monitor airports. And he said even the U.S. Agriculture Department has uniformed officers.

"Those are uniformed federal law enforcement personnel just looking for contraband food," he said. "But they're telling us we can't have uniformed, federal law enforcement personnel to look for knives, guns, bombs, plastic explosives and other very sophisticated things that could be smuggled onto planes? That has got to change."

Democrats in the House said they think there is widespread support on Capitol Hill to have federal employees handle screening. Oberstar predicted the idea would "pass handily" in the House.

In the Senate, aides said there is also support for an increased federal role in the screening process. Two high-ranking members of the Senate committee that handles aviation -- U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-South Carolina, and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona -- both favor federal responsibility for security and screening.

But some Republicans have strong concerns about the red tape involved in creating a new federal entity.

"I lean toward federalizing airport security, but it's how you do it," said U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority whip. "I personally feel that a nonprofit organization or corporation of some sort (could be) set aside to run security in the airports. I worry about creating another federalized bureaucracy."

Republicans said they are also concerned about the cost of a new federal agency and worry about paying federal employees to work at the nation's smaller airports, where they might sit idle for hours at a time.

One Senate Republican aide said it would take a lot of negotiating to get a bill that most members of Congress will agree on.

"I think there's a vast majority in the Senate that thinks you need a greater federal role," the aide said. "There's an openness to working with the administration behind closed doors to work this out."

Several congressional aides said they viewed Bush's plan as a starting point for further negotiations with Congress.

Some lawmakers -- both Democrats and Republicans -- favor placing a surcharge on airline tickets to cover the cost of hiring federal security screeners.

Oberstar said his proposed $2.50 charge for a one-way ticket is about the price of a Starbucks grande cappuccino in any one of the nation's airports.


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