WASHINGTON – An airline safety bill that may never have seen the light of day is finally getting a whole lot of sunshine in the House of Representatives.
House lawmakers have come up with three different versions of the Senate-passed aviation security bill. The different measures have much in common: They would require cockpit doors to be fortified, expand anti-hijacking training for flight crew, add air marshals to flights, and impose a passenger fee of up to $2.50 per flight to pay for increased security.
They would also make the government, instead of airlines, responsible for airport security.
But what the government's role will be remains a sticking point and possibly a deal breaker.
A Senate version of the bill passed on a 100-0 vote last week. It federalizes 28,000 airport baggage screeners and makes local and state government responsible for security at smaller airports.
Reps. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, and Robert Andrews, D-N.J., like that bill and have introduced an identical version in the House. Fourteen moderate Republicans, including Ganske, have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
But most House Republicans hate the idea. They say the Senate version creates a whole new federal bureaucracy.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and aviation subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., are introducing a bill that would put the government in charge of overseeing and training screeners and station at least one federal security manager at every airport but leave screening personnel in the private sector.
"Why would you want to create this huge army or bureaucracy of federal employees?" Mica asked.
A third option is one introduced by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and others last week. It differs from the Senate bill in that it fully federalizes screeners without differentiating between large and small airports and leaves oversight of aviation security in the Transportation Department rather than in the Justice Department.
At a news conference Tuesday at Washington's Reagan National Airport, Gephardt said he could "no longer stand by while a handful in the House of Representatives prevent dramatic reform of aviation security."
"That is politics," replied House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. "What the Democrats want is 30,000 new dues-paying union members."
Armey supports the GOP bill.
Mica said the United States should follow the models of Europe and Israel, where 10-15 percent of security personnel are government employees and the rest privately contracted.
But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, a principal backer of the Senate bill, argued that in those countries, the government either handles screening or pays for the health and other benefits of private screeners.
Mica and Young say they have the president's support. The White House reluctantly backed the Senate measure last week, but President Bush said Monday, "We must resist pressure to unwisely expand government."
Armey said he hoped to bring aviation security to the floor for a vote next week, while acknowledging that he was unsure he had the votes to pass the plan backed by GOP leaders.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said last week that if Congress doesn't agree on a package, Bush has "broad authority" to enact by executive order most parts of a security plan. Democrats said the nation's safety cannot be guaranteed by executive order.
Ganske and Andrews said Wednesday they will block the GOP leaders' bill if they are denied equal access to the floor to vote on their bill.
"The American people will not tolerate this," Andrews said, adding that it would be "a surefire recipe for gridlock."
The aviation security bill is the third major leg of Congress' response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Congress passed a $40 billion emergency spending bill and a $15 billion bill to prop up struggling airlines within days of the attack.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.