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White House Silent on Airline Bill

by J.P. Cassidy / The Hill Friday, Nov. 02, 2001 at 3:34 PM

After a bipartisan Senate passed an airline security bill 100-0 that would federalize 28,000 airport security workers, House Republicans decided that "Big Government" was a bigger threat than another terrorist attack. On Saturday, Bush praised the Republican plan in his weekly radio address, but the next day his chief of staff, Andrew Card, went on NBC's "Meet the Press" to say that Bush wouldn't veto the Senate plan. [This is leadership?]

White House silent on airline bill

By J.P. Cassidy

With a showdown vote scheduled in the House Thursday on the Senate-passed airline and airport security bill, at least seven key Republicans say they had yet to hear from administration lobbyists, as of Tuesday morning.

Spokesmen for Reps. Charlie Norwood (Ga.), Jim Leach (Iowa), John Sweeney (N.Y.), Frank Wolf (Va.), Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.), Stephen Horn (Calif.) and Greg Ganske (Iowa) say their offices have not yet been contacted by the White House or the Department of Transportation. The first six are co-sponsors of Ganske's companion to the airline security bill passed unanimously by the Senate last week.

They are among 15 Republicans known to have expressed interest in Ganske's bill, backed by the House Democratic leadership, which would federalize baggage screening at 142 of the nation's 420 commercial airports.

At least three other Republicans who have co-sponsored Ganske's bill say they heard from the White House only last week.

Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), who intends to vote for federalizing the airline security force, says the White House has called him twice and the DOT called his staff once.

"They might keep calling until they understand I intend to vote for this," Ramstad said. "But I've talked to countless airport and airline employees, and, to a person, they have said that passenger and baggage security should be done by law enforcement agents, not private security functionaries."

Both sides say the vote is too close to call, but at least five Republicans - Ganske, Ramstad, Wolf, Emerson and Connie Morella (Md.) - intend to vote for federalization, which would be enough to pass the bill if Democratic ranks hold.

The crux of the dispute is whether the nation's 28,000 baggage screeners should be federal or private employees. The Republican plan, backed by Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Texas) and Majority Leader Dick Armey (Texas), would allow President Bush to decide how many baggage screeners should be federal employees and would set federal standards for private security contractors.

The question of how strongly Bush backs DeLay and Armey has swirled around Capitol Hill this week, since the mixed messages coming from the White House indicate either confusion and incompetence or a master orchestration of strategic ambiguity.

After Bush praised the Republican plan in his weekly radio address Saturday, his chief of staff, Andrew Card, went on NBC's "Meet the Press" the next day to say that Bush wouldn't veto the Democratic plan. "I suspect he wouldn't want to have to sign it, but he would," Card said.

Then, on Monday, Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said Card's contention "may or may not be the case."

DeLay's chief deputy, Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), said this week that Bush will implement his plan by executive order if the Republican bill isn't passed, contradicting earlier statements by Bush. Also, two of Bush's congressional lobbyists have been meeting daily with DeLay and his staff.

One senior Republican aide said that opposition to federalization is coming chiefly from Bush, not just DeLay.

"The Democrats would prefer to use their tried-and-true foils [DeLay and Armey] rather than take on the president and his 90-percent approval ratings," the aide said.

Asked about Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's lobbying efforts last Thursday on behalf of the Republican bill, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) talked about Republican leaders instead.

"I simply do not believe that the Republican leadership can sell a majority in the Congress on an approach which has proven to have failed," Gephardt said. "You had a vote in the Senate of 100 to nothing for an approach that we agree with. And as you know, it's hard to get a 100-to-nothing vote for apple pie."

Without strong support from Bush, and with disagreement even among the ranks of the Republican leadership, DeLay will have to stretch his power to the limit to win this fight.

Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs the Democratic Task Force on Homeland Security, said, aside from the merits of the respective cases, federal agents will do more to restore confidence in the airlines.

"To continue with the system that failed us is not sufficient," he said.

"[Republicans] can varnish it, but it's the same system, and the people realize that."

Republicans say that hiring baggage screeners as federal employees would make it difficult to fire incompetent workers.

Democrats say that point is moot, since the Senate bill gives Attorney General John Ashcroft the authority to fire inadequate screeners without regard to most civil service protections.

"We're eager to implement a model that has been proven effective," DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said. "In Europe and Israel, the nationalization approach implemented in the '70s and '80s didn't work. So they went with a public-private partnership. That way, you have the public accountability and the private flexibility."

Most European airports use private security forces, but Ganske calls that a misleading argument. "There's been a great deal of misinformation by opponents of the bill, saying that security screeners in Israel are private contractors," he said. "That's wrong."

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