WASHINGTON – House Democrats went on the offensive Thursday, demanding a vote on an aviation security bill that passed the Senate 100-0 two weeks ago.
House GOP leaders want to offer their own version for improving airline safety measures and have said they will have a vote on airline safety next week.
Republican leaders argue that the Senate bill includes one substantial sticking point that they can not support: the bill calls for the government to federalize 28,000 airport baggage screeners at the nation's 142 largest airports.
House Republicans prefer that private employers manage airport baggage screeners with the federal government merely overseeing their training and hiring.
House Democrats say they are confident the Senate approach will prevail. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said Thursday the Senate measure "leaves the federal government the flexibility to build the best work force to perform the actual screening function."
For the past week, Democrats have pounded Republicans for moving quickly with a bailout package for airlines while putting off the issue of air safety. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and others accused Democrats of bowing to their organized-labor allies in insisting on a new federal work force.
"It amazes me that anyone would even dare to think of anything other than air security," Armey said at the news conference.
The House Republican bill requires federal supervision of the screening process, background checks and testing of screeners, but gives the administration the option of using either federal employees or contracting with private screening companies. Supporters argue that this formula has worked well in Europe and Israel, although backers of the Senate bill say the bulk of airport security in Europe and Israel is still done by publicly employed security.
Both the Senate bill and the House Republican bill would create a Transportation Security Administration within the Transportation Department responsible for security of all modes of transportation. They also increase the number of air marshals on flights, demand stronger cockpit doors, require law enforcement personnel at screening locations in airports, and impose a fee of up to $2.50 per flight to pay for new security measures.
The president has urged swift action on the measure. The White House prefers the House Republican version, saying it offers the "quickest, most effective way" to improve security. The president reluctantly went along with the Senate's approach when it voted on the bill Oct. 11.
House Republicans suggested that the president issue executive orders to install security measures rather than face the unacceptable Senate bill. The administration has already taken steps to train air marshals and improve cockpit doors.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, at a news conference with House Republicans, said he expected the House and Senate to reach a compromise on the federalization issue. "I don't think the president will be put in the position of having to veto" a bill.
Gephardt added that he never heard the president say that he wouldn't sign a bill.
"I believe — and I'm just giving you my view and I've not heard this from him or any of his people — but my belief is, if we send him a reasonable bill that has bipartisan support, that he would likely sign that bill. That's my assumption; that's my belief," he said.
Mineta said its crucial that Congress approve a long-term structure for better security before some other incident occurs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.