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GOP Brings Bush-Backed Airline Security Bill to Vote in U.S. House

By Juliet Eilperin
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

House Republicans and administration officials launched a major lobbying and publicity push in favor of their aviation security bill Thursday, hoping to head off the creation of a new federal baggage screening system.

House leaders, who oppose a Senate-passed bill calling for hiring 28,000 government employees to scrutinize passengers’ bags, have delayed holding a vote on the issue for two weeks. But confident they can now muster the votes for their own proposal, Republicans plan to bring the matter to the floor next Wednesday.

Chief Deputy Whip Roy Blunt, (R-Mo.) predicted Thursday that the majority of Republicans, along with some Democrats, would back a GOP bill next week allowing President Bush to choose between hiring private contractors and federal workers to screen bags. Several European countries and Israel use a mix of private and public employees to provide airport security, Blunt added.

“Every day, as members learn more about airline security around the world, they move toward the president’s position,” Blunt said. “We’ll have those votes.”

The question of aviation security has become a vexing political problem for the GOP, as congressional Democrats press for the creation of a federal baggage screening system. In the face of growing concerns over the lack of House action on airport security, House Republican leaders have tried unsuccessfully to get President Bush to issue an executive order tightening airport security, which would allow them to avoid a vote on the matter. But Bush refused.

Bush has yet to say whether he would veto the Senate bill, which passed unanimously and would also strengthen cockpit doors, put armed marshals on flights and place airport safety under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. Thursday, however, he sent a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) endorsing the House bill and sent Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to stump for the measure.

“This bill, H.R. 3150, reflects what the president wants done,” Mineta declared at a morning press conference with GOP leaders.

In his letter to Hastert, Bush directly attacked the idea of federalization. “Such an inflexible, one-size-fits-all requirement fails to permit security tailored to the very different circumstances that exist at airports across the country,” the president wrote.

Blunt suggested that Bush’s letter, coupled with the fact that Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other Senate Republicans came out publicly against federalization Thursday, should bring several wavering lawmakers over to their side.

Republicans argue their proposal will enhance federal supervision of airline safety, and impose strict new standards on private contractors. But Democrats counter that because the American aviation system is so much larger than Europe’s, with ten times as many airports, the nation needs a government-wide system.

Several Democratic mayors and a flight attendant called for a government workforce at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

“This is not a complicated issue,” said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo). “The status quo does not work and it must not stand. We need to pull the system up by the roots and overhaul it for the sake of all Americans.”