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White House offers compromise for airport security

Minority Leader Trent Lott
Minority Leader Trent Lott  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With legislation aimed at improving airport security stalled in the Senate, the Bush administration offered a proposal Wednesday that would compromise on the issue of making airport security screeners federal employees, CNN has learned.

The legislation is critical because knives and box cutters that slipped past airport security are thought to be the weapons used by hijackers who turned civilian jetliners into weapons that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta met with key senators on both sides of the aisle Wednesday after Republicans blocked Democratic efforts to bring the bill to the Senate floor.

Mineta has put forward a proposal that would put the federal government in charge of security screening, but would not necessarily make all workers doing the screening federal agents, according to a senior Republican aide.

Under the plan, after a transitional period of 18 months, Mineta would make an airport-by-airport determination on whether to make the existing security screeners federal employees or to contract the work out.

Based on the documents CNN obtained, the administration argued 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 argued, 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 proven 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 the president 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 one 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.

But some federal role may be inevitable. In fact, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who met with Mineta along with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said they are all agreed 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 this 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," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi.


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