The debate over aviation security degenerated into finger-pointing Tuesday as the Bush administration blamed Congress for shortchanging the effort by $1-billion and warned that travelers could face longer lines as a result.
Members of Congress then accused the administration of paying exorbitant salaries to employees of the newly created Transportation Security Administration and complained that the agency's recently ousted director was "incompetent."
The squabble on Capitol Hill did not bode well for airline passengers hoping for a smooth transition to the federalized security system created by lawmakers in response to the September terrorist hijackings.
At issue before the House Aviation Subcommittee were two congressionally mandated deadlines: Nov. 19, when the federal government is supposed to take over passenger screening, and Dec. 31, when the government is supposed to screen all checked baggage for explosives.
In a contentious appearance before the subcommittee, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta gave contradictory messages about whether federal officials could meet the deadlines.
He initially indicated they could not, saying, "We are confronted with a load TSA cannot lift." But at the end of the three-hour hearing, Mineta relented and said the deadlines could be met, although he warned of long lines due to insufficient machines and staffing.
"As far as I'm concerned, we're going to meet those dates, but it's going to slow the process down," he said.
Indeed, long waits are expected at Tampa International Airport if the government tries to meet the Dec. 31 deadline.
"Even if they get the money they need for full staffing, we're looking at lines of at least an hour at peak times," said Louis Miller, the head of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.
Mineta put much of the blame on Congress for shortchanging the TSA. The Bush administration requested $4.4-billion for the agency in an emergency spending bill, but he said Congress has cut that by about $1-billion.
"The amount of money Congress is about to approve simply will not support the mandates and timetables for aviation security that Congress set last fall for the TSA," he said.
But Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Largo Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said in an interview Tuesday that the TSA failed to prove it needed that much money.
"After three hearings, they have failed to justify how they would use the money," Young said.
An amendment to extend the baggage deadline by one year is included on the bill to create a new Homeland Security Department. But it's unclear whether it will pass on the House floor this week.
Many Republicans said Tuesday they support the extension, but Democrats pounced on the opportunity to portray the GOP as soft on security.
"Now the Congress is doing the job the bureaucracy usually does _ providing the delays," said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., who called the deadline extension "an outrageous attempt to undo the law we enacted last year."
On Tuesday, there was lots of blame to go around.
Subcommittee members blamed John Magaw, the head of the TSA who was fired last week.
"He was incompetent," groused Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "People thought he was totally out to lunch."
They blamed the Bush administration.
"The administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth," complained Rep. William Pascrell, D-N.J.
They even blamed themselves.
"We are responsible for creating the TSA monster and giving it this huge bureaucratic mandate," said Rep. John Mica, the Winter Park Republican who chairs the subcommittee.
The monster needs to be fed.
The emergency spending bill has been slowed for months because of disagreements between the House and Senate. In the meantime, the TSA has had to borrow about $1-billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The spending bill is expected to be approved by both houses this week.
Adding to the debate on Tuesday were new revelations about TSA salaries. The inspector general's office of the Department of Transportation reported that 82 percent of the TSA's attorneys have salaries between $90,000 and $144,000, while three-fourths of the employees in inspection, investigation and compliance jobs earn between $91,421 and $141,500.
"We need an efficient TSA," said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. "We don't need a big bureaucracy."
_ Staff writer Bill Adair can be reached at (202) 463-0575 or adairsptimes.com.