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Airline security bill hits snag

From Kate Snow
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a sign that not everything Congress does after September 11 will be easy or unanimous, House negotiators working on an airline security bill have reached an impasse over whether people who work as security screeners at airports should be federal employees or employees of private contractors.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, emerging from talks on the issue, said GOP leaders may simply schedule a vote and let members argue it out on the floor even if that means the Democratic position prevails.

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Since the attacks, congressional leaders have preferred to settle differences behind closed doors, but Armey indicated that might be impossible to do in this case.

President Bush last week said he would "work with Congress to put the federal government in charge of passenger and bag screening." He talked of setting tougher, consistent standards but stopped short of calling for the screeners to be federal employees.

A senior administration official said the president's proposal would allow the federal government to contract the work to private firms, although the government would do background checks, train and supervise the private-sector workers.

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

House Republicans support the president's proposal, but House Democrats have expressed concerns. Democrats want screeners to be federal agents.

"This nation has been at war," Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minnesota, said last week. "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."

Privately, aides say House Republicans are waiting for a signal from the White House or Republican leadership as to how they should proceed.

If the White House would give in on the issue of federalizing screeners, they would have a deal. If not, the House may be forced to switch to a bill similar to the Senate's version or another alternative.

The Senate bill provides for a new deputy secretary of transportation security to be in charge of screeners. At the nation's largest 140 airports, those screeners would be federal employees. Smaller airports would have the option of using state or local law enforcement agents to do security screening. However, they could not use private, contracted employees.

Votes in both chambers could take place late this week or next, aides said.


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