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White House pushes hard for airline security bill

From Major Garrett
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The president, the vice president and the transportation secretary are intensifying their personal lobbying for an airline security bill that does not require federalization of baggage screeners and other airport security personnel, senior administration sources tell CNN.

President Bush, in a letter Thursday to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, urged House Republicans to back the bill.

"Both my proposal and (the bill crafted by House GOP leaders) give the federal government immediate and comprehensive control of aviation security," Bush wrote. "Significantly, (the House GOP bill) leaves the federal government the flexibility to build the best workforce to perform the actual screening function."

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In his letter to Hastert, Bush criticized efforts by House Democrats to require that all airport baggage and security personnel become federal workers "in all circumstances."

"Such an inflexible, one-size-fits-all requirement fails to permit security tailored to the very different circumstances that exist at airports across the country," he wrote.

Final touches were applied to the lobbying plan at a senior-level White House meeting Wednesday, the administration sources said. The strategy is due to culminate in a House floor vote next Wednesday on the House GOP bill.

The Senate has already passed, by a vote of 100-0, an airport security bill that calls for federalizing all airport security personnel.

"The presidential commitment on this is fierce," said one senior official. "It's been six weeks since the attacks and there is an intense realization that we've got to get this done. If that means steamrolling in one direction or another, that's what we'll do. You will see an unforgiving push to get this accomplished."

Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta appeared with GOP leaders Thursday to endorse the GOP House bill, which calls for new federal standards for airport security but does not mandate full federalization of airport baggage screeners or other security personnel.

The administration for weeks has tried to negotiate a bill with House Democrats that does not mandate full federal employee status for such workers. But those talks proved fruitless. The approach now will be to stand with GOP leaders, rally rank-and-file Republicans and argue that a federalized system will be more costly and less safe than a private system with tough federal oversight.

"It's fair to say the president and the vice president will intensify their engagement," said another senior official involved in the strategy. "The first thing we've got to do is get it through the House. It will be a tough vote. I think most Republicans will get behind it and there will be some Democratic support. I don't anticipate it will be easy, but I don't think it will be like the patients' bill of rights, either."

Senior House GOP aides say airline CEOs and pilots will be among those lobbying publicly for the GOP bill.

"We are absolutely for federalization of the system," said a senior GOP House aide. "But that means federal supervision and control and standards. It doesn't mean every employee being a civil servant or part of a federal union. When this is done we believe the American public will understand that federal control and responsibility for the system is what's important."

Democrats organizing rallies

Democrats also plan large-scale rallies in favor of top-to-bottom federalization of airport security. Rallies with Democratic mayors and members of Congress are planned next Monday for Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Denver, Miami, New York, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Seattle, among other cities.

The rallies, organized by the Democratic National Committee, will feature unionized airline workers such as machinists, flight attendants, pilots and other union members eager to see a federalized airport security work force fully unionized.

"What the American people support and what workers at airports support is a full, federalized security work force," said Jennifer Palmieri, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. "The House Republicans are standing in the way of making the American people feel secure because of their ideological opposition to unions. We believe everyone in airport security should be a federal employee. If it's good enough for the Justice Department or the FBI, it ought to be good enough for airport security."

Officials said Mineta will lobby his former House Democratic colleagues for support while Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will urge Republicans to back the bill and promise support if they are criticized for not supporting a fully federalized airport security force.

The House version of the airline security bill calls for tough federal standards applied to private security firms and regular checks to see if standards are being met. It also gives the administration the option of using federal employees to screen baggage or contracting with federally certified screening companies. The bill also requires federal, state or local law enforcement personnel at each security screening location.

While the senior officials said they were unaware of new, specific threats to the airline system, both said passage of a new security bill was an urgent priority.

"Al Qaeda is not out there waiting for us to debate sub-clauses for the next eight weeks," one official said. "This is a critical part of our national security. There's going to be a full-court press. The president is bound and determined to make this happen. There is a determination that is warrior-like."


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