WASHINGTON - House and Senate negotiators tentatively agreed today to put all airport baggage screeners on the federal payroll, clearing the way for passage as early as this week of a major aviation security bill.
"There is going to be true federal responsibility" for airport security, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Under the agreement, the government would immediately begin taking over control of airport screening functions, completing that transition within a year. After that year, all 28,000 baggage screeners, who are now employees of private security firms contracted by airlines, would become federal workers.
All airports would have to stay within the federal system for three years except for five airports that could experiment with other systems under strict federal supervision. After three years, any airport could choose to use non-federal workers as screeners.
Negotiators have been under strong pressure from the White House and their own colleagues to reach a compromise so a bill could be presented to President Bush before Thanksgiving. The legislation, while taking time to phase in, is seen as giving a major boost to the nation's flagging confidence in the safety of air travel.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill, "views this compromise as a huge victory for the American people," said his spokesman, John Feehery. The bill could reach the House floor by Friday morning, Feehery said, making it possible to send the legislation to the president before Congress leaves for the Thanksgiving holiday. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said it was also his intention to vote on the bill Friday.
The original Senate bill sought the move to make all screeners federal workers similar to customs or immigration officials. But House Republicans objected to creating a new federal bureaucracy, and the House bill put the government in charge of screening but allowed the administration to choose whether workers will be civil servants or privately employed.
"I think I got the best deal I can," said the House Transportation Committee chairman, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. He said the Senate accepted nearly all the provisions of the House bill except on the screening issue.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., another chief negotiator for the House, said the compromise includes most of the House liability protections for the owners of the World Trade Center and others affected by the Sept. 11 attacks.
The proposed compromise would put transportation security under the Transportation Department, as written in the House bill. The Senate would have moved that jurisdiction to the Justice Department.
The negotiators also agreed to levy a $2.50 fee every time a passenger gets on a plane to help pay for security costs, but would limit that to $5.00 per trip.
The two sides were already in agreement on many points, such as fortifying cockpit doors, increasing air marshals on flights and moving toward screening of all check-in bags.
Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead told a Senate Governmental Affairs hearing Wednesday that numerous measures had been taken since Sept. 11 to bolster security. He cited reinforced cockpit doors, use of law enforcement officials and National Guard at airport checkpoints, background checks of airport personnel, use of FBI watch lists to identify suspicious passengers, and allowing only ticketed passengers beyond screening points.
But he said there were "still alarming lapses of security" and that steps taken would remain patchwork until Congress moves to enact fundamental changes.
Fewer than 10 percent of checked bags at the nation's airports are inspected for bombs and one overworked detection machine operator was found falling asleep on the job, Mead said.
He said that even those airports that have the $1 million machines often use them only sporadically. A survey by his office over the past weekend of 30 machines at nine airports found that 73 percent were not in continuous use.
Mead said checks over the past several weeks found some 90 security problems, including screeners missing dangerous items such as knives in carryon bags and airlines not carrying out random checks of passengers.
One of the big problems, those at the hearing said, was a lack of consistency. "You know something is wrong when screeners are confiscating thousands of nail clippers but allowing people with arsenals of weapons through," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.