WASHINGTON — The House passed aviation security legislation Thursday after rejecting a Senate version that would have turned airport screening operations over to federal employees. The vote was a major victory for the White House and its Republican allies.
The bill, which takes steps to make airplanes and airports safer from attack, passed 286-139.
It followed minutes after a crucial 218-214 vote to defeat the Senate-passed, Democratic-backed alternative. The Republican-backed bill would allow screening to be remain contracted out to private employers.
"The American people deserve tough security standards, and the House plan delivers," President Bush said in a statement. "I urge the House and Senate to work together to send a strong and effective bill to my desk."
The House action could delay for weeks enacting a wide-ranging package of new security measures aimed at restoring Americans’ confidence in flying after terrorists hijacked four airliners Sept. 11 and turned them into weapons of mass destruction. Lawmakers now face the task of trying to find a compromise with the Senate, which voted 100-0 three weeks ago to pass the measure making screeners federal employees.
"My greatest fear is that if it goes to a conference, it never comes out," House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt said earlier Thursday.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a key sponsor of the Senate bill, said he expected the Senate to stand by its emphasis on federal screeners and "fight to restore these important security measures."
Bush met GOP lawmakers Thursday morning and made calls throughout the day trying to win over the last undecided members. "I want every mom and dad who gets on an airplane to feel safe," he said. In the end, eight Republicans voted for the Senate bill while six Democrats voted against it.
The Republican bill puts the government in control of the training and supervision of airport baggage screeners but allows the president to decide whether screeners should be public servants or private employees.
GOP conservatives strongly resisted the formation of a new federal workforce of about 28,000 people. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a chief sponsor of the Republican bill, said he was determined not to "create the biggest bureaucracy in the history of a generation."
Democrats asserted that the current system, in which airlines contract out security functions to private companies, has failed to provide air travelers with adequate security and that screening must become a law enforcement operation.
"Do you want to contract out the Capitol Police?" Gephardt asked his colleagues. "Do you want to contract out the U.S. Marines? If it is good enough for us, it is good enough for the American people."
Both bills require more air marshals on commercial flights as well as secured cockpit doors. They would expand anti-hijacking training for crews and move toward inspecting all checked bags and matching passengers to bags.
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