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Congress stalled on airport security bill

By Kate Snow and Dana Bash
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Republican leaders pledged Wednesday to fight any effort to create a system of airport security using only federal employees, the same issue contributing to an impasse in the Senate floor.

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House GOP leaders said they would insist on a bill that makes the federal government responsible for security but allows privately contracted employees to do the actual screening.

For conservative Republicans, creating a government agency with 27,000 federal workers is unacceptable.

"A bureaucracy shelters itself from criticism. A bureaucracy shelters itself from real accountability," said House Republican Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas.

"The last thing that we can afford to do is erect some new bureaucracy that is unaccountable and unable to protect the American public."

Delay joined Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, and Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, in calling for a system similar to those in place in Europe and Israel.

Attempts by the Bush administration last week to forge a compromise on federalizing security workers did not sit well with Delay and other conservative members of the House.

"Mr. Mineta was looking for some way to get a bill through the House," Delay said, referring to the transportation secretary's visit to Capitol Hill last Thursday.

"And we saw what Mr. Mineta brought to the House was different from the president's position. And we support the president's position."

House Republicans would like to move the president's version of an airport security bill, Delay said, but they worry they lack the votes to pass it.

Delay said he would not necessarily hold up action on any aviation security bill over the issue of federalization, but he indicated House leaders would like to "wait until we have the votes."

Meantime, the issue has stalled in the Senate and brought out the biggest partisan divide in the month since the September 11 attacks -- for much the same reasons.

The Senate is debating an airport security bill offered by Senate Commerce Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-South Carolina, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, ranking Republican on the committee.

Under the legislation, screeners and baggage handlers in the 142 largest airports would be federal employees. But the Department of Transportation would decide whether to include workers at some 300 smaller airports, or whether to make them employees of state or local authorities.

Most Senate Republicans agree with their House colleagues there should be federal standards for such workers, but that they should be employed by private contractors.

Nearly two weeks of negotiations to reach compromise on the issue of federalization have been fruitless, despite the fact that all sides said passing the airline security measure is key to getting enough Americans back on planes to prop up the travel industry.

The other issue crippling movement on the aviation security measure is a $1.9 billion Democratic initiative sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Carnahan, D-Missouri, to help unemployed airline workers.

The measure, offered on the Senate floor Wednesday night, would extend by 20 weeks unemployment benefits for airline workers, give unemployment benefits to those who didn't qualify, and pay their health care premiums for a year.

Many Republican senators said they oppose the bill primarily because they said it is "extraneous" to airline safety.

To make the point, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, offered an amendment to allow drilling on 2,000 acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, saying it had more to do with national security than worker relief.

"If we're going to vote on extraneous amendments that our Democrat colleagues want to vote on, then I want to vote on amendments that I think will benefit the country," Gramm said.

"Quite frankly, I think nothing could do more to immediately bolster national security then enabling us to produce more oil and gas here at home at a price consumers could afford."

Delay accused some in the Senate of taking advantage of the September 11 attacks and playing politics.

"It's very difficult to compromise on something that will not work," Delay said. "I'd have to say that there are some, in the Senate particularly, that have used the new bipartisanship that we have seen and welcomed since September 11 to advance their own opportunistic agenda."


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