Crash adds urgency to bill bolstering airport security

House and Senate may cut a deal this week. Recent lapses at checkpoints reveal flaws in current screening system.

Even before the crash of an American Airlines flight this week, pressure was building on Congress to quickly settle differences over a new aviation security plan.

The measure - which became a top congressional priority on Sept. 11 - bogged down over whether passengers and bags should be screened by federal employees or private contractors.

But Monday's crash of Flight 587, coming just a week before the busy Thanksgiving travel days, adds urgency to negotiations to bridge House-Senate gaps on airport security. The crash could even prompt a tightening of the timetable for some key safety moves.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas has begun pushing for language requiring inspection of all checked bags within six months of enactment of the new law - rather than in 2003 or later.

"Regardless of the cause of this crash, we have to get a strong bill passed this week," Ms. Hutchison said Monday.

Some analysts expect the key sticking point to be resolved mostly along the lines of the Senate bill, which would federalize security at 142 large airports.

But to some House conservatives, the notion of adding 27,000 to the federal payroll is unacceptable. President Bush risks alienating key House leaders if he signs off on a Senate-style compromise.

In the last few days, the White House and congressional negotiators have been exploring a new balance between public and private security workers. While the Senate bill would federalize screeners at the large airports accounting for most traffic, administration officials are suggesting using federal workers at the smallest airports - where some of the Sept. 11 terrorists entered the system.

"I'm optimistic that the White House will be practical on this," says Sen. John Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, a conferee. "Once people see there is a bill passed, they will feel a lot better about air travel."

A compromise on the legislation could come as early as this week.

The House and Senate versions of this bill already have much in common. Both provide stronger federal standards and oversight for airport security, including criminal background checks and better training for airport security workers. Both plans also secure cockpit doors, require federal air marshals on domestic flights, and allow pilots to carry arms.

The main sticking point is over who employs airport screeners. Only by taking the security function out of the hands of least-cost private firms will the public regain confidence in flying, Senate sponsors argue. But some House GOP leaders, notably Texans Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, view the plan as a ploy to increase the number of union members and Democratic Party supporters. They say successful European and Israeli airlines use a mixture of public and private workers on their security teams, and that President Bush should have the option to choose the balance that is most appropriate.

House Republicans say the pressure to go along on this point was fierce. "There was a great deal of arm twisting and breaking [at the House vote], and a lot of deals were made," says Rep. Jim Ramstad (R) of Minnesota, one of eight Republicans to vote for adopting a Senate-style plan. "But how much more evidence do we need that this critical work should be done by a highly trained security force?"

One bit of evidence cropped up at Chicago's O'Hare airport last week when a passenger with a bag full of knifes walked past screeners. Mr. DeLay (R) fired off an angry letter to the private company security company involved. It replaced senior managers the next day.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is taking steps to boost confidence during the holiday travel season. Some 7,000 National Guard troops were deployed to work at airports on Sept. 27, and last week the White House ordered another 2,000 for the holidays.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.