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Compromise far from eye-to-eye

Published Sep. 10, 2005

House and Senate lawmakers deadlocked Tuesday evening over how to overhaul the nation's aviation security system, despite widespread agreement from both sides that Congress should vote on changes before the heavily traveled Thanksgiving holidays.

Refusing to budge from their earlier positions, lawmakers sounded doubtful that they would accept a compromise plan offered by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

The main sticking point _ as it was during a fractious debate in the House two weeks ago _ was over whether to make all airport baggage screeners federal workers or let President Bush decide whether they should remain private employees.

"We've got to start talking about how we can get a good bill out of here," Hutchison said, sounding frustrated at the end of the 90-minute meeting.

"We cannot keep talking to each other about what's wrong with the other one's bill and do that. So I ask you to look at the timetable, and let's try to move a bill that would make all of us comfortable (with the idea) that we are increasing security for the travelers."

Last month the Senate voted unanimously to make federal employees of the nation's 28,000 screeners. On Nov. 1, House Republican leaders, working with the White House, pushed through the more modest proposal rejecting the Senate plan by a 218-214 vote and giving Bush authority to decide the extent of federal staffing.

Hutchison's plan would blend the two elements by having federal screeners at the nation's 31 busiest airports, which handle about 70 percent of the total passenger load, and letting Bush decide the public-private staffing issue at the other 388 commercial airports.

Her proposal also would require a federal supervisor at every screening site in the nation's 137 hub airports. It would require that within 60 days all checked baggage be screened. Now most is not screened _ in contrast to carry-on baggage, which is checked.

Hutchison's measure would also give jurisdiction over aviation security to the Department of Transportation _ as the House bill provides _ instead of the Justice Department, as the Senate bill calls for.

The compromise received lukewarm, at best, feedback from other lawmakers at the table. House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, said he would consult with the White House and other lawmakers and possibly introduce a counterproposal when the committee meets again this afternoon. But he refused to rule out embracing any of the items offered in Hutchison's plan.

Hutchison's fellow senators objected to her plan.

"This is not about making sausage. This is about improving security," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., charging that the compromise would, in effect, create more lax security standards for smaller airports.

All eight House and 13 Senate negotiators agreed that Congress needs to reach agreement by the end of the week so that Bush can sign an airline security bill into law before travelers head into the busy Thanksgiving weekend.

Staffers on both sides already have hammered out agreements on 45 of the main 71 differences between the two bills, including those to strengthen cockpit doors and deploy more sky marshals on flights.

Still outstanding is how much to charge in security fees to pay for increased screening.