Bush expands Natl. Guard role at airports
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As Americans pack their bags for trips over the coming holidays, President Bush said Friday he is increasing -- by 25 percent -- the number of National Guard and reserve troops available to governors to deploy at airports around the nation.
"We're calling up these Guardsmen and women immediately," Bush said during a White House ceremony. "This increase in security will last through the busy holiday period."
The White House said the president's move will boost the National Guard presence from almost 7,000 troops mobilized at airports since September 11th to more than 9,000. The administration will ask Congress to provide an additional approximately $65 million to states, giving governors the authority to decide how best to deploy the troops.
The National Guard could be asked to take on a range of duties including monitoring passengers at baggage screening locations, guarding boarding gates and air traffic control facilities, providing security in parking garages and monitoring curbside traffic, said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
The money comes from the $40 billion emergency supplemental package already approved by Congress to deal with the September 11 attacks. Bush has already asked Congress for $205 million to pay for the initial deployment of National Guard troops at airport security checkpoints.
The president made the announcement at a ceremony to sign a proclamation naming next week the National Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Week.
"We could not win the war without the help of the Guard and the reservists," Bush said. "And they, in turn, could not do their vital work without the support of their employers. Many employers are putting the national interests above their own self-interest."
House and Senate still at odds
The reserve call-up is only temporary, Bush said, and he urged Congress to quickly reconcile the differences between the airline transportation safety bills passed recently by both the House and Senate.
"The negotiators are working hard to come up with a bill that I can sign," Bush said earlier during a news conference with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. "And I believe they will come up with a bill that I can sign ... I don't believe they're that far apart, nor did I believe they were that far apart when the process began."
While the House and Senate bills are similar in many ways, they differ on whether those who work as baggage screeners must be government employees.
The House bill, backed by Bush, implements a federally supervised and trained airport security workforce, but allows for private contractors to actually employ security workers.
The Senate bill, backed by most Democrats on both sides of the Capitol, makes some 28,000 screeners and baggage handlers government employees.
Hill Republican aides said that House and Senate staffers met Thursday and Friday, and planned to meet throughout the weekend, with the goal of having some "package" available for lawmakers to consider when they return Tuesday.
While a congressional committee tries to iron out the differences, Bush has instructed National Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to begin "high level transition planning sessions" with airport operators, security device manufacturers and airline officials, in anticipation of federal changes.
In addition, airport security will be tested by "undercover audits" conducted by the Transportation Department "to ensure the strict compliance of FAA security standards," Bush said.
CNN White House Correspondent Kelly Wallace contributed to this report.
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