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House passes GOP-backed air security bill

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House late Thursday approved an aviation security measure that will let the federal government oversee airport security but does not make airport screeners federal employees.

The Republican-backed measure, approved by a vote of 285 to 138, calls for federal oversight of private security screening companies. The administration will have the choice to hire private security companies or federal employees.

Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Oklahoma, said the measure will give airline passengers peace of mind.

Airport security is on the minds of many lawmakers, but Congress is divided on how best to proceed. CNN's Kate Snow reports (November 1)

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"This legislation was about safety and security for those moms that I see in airports almost on a weekly basis that have a baby chair on one arm and a baby in the other arm and they're rushing to get to the gate," he said. "This bill is about them, so they have peace of mind."

President Bush commended the House on passage of the measure.

"I am pleased the bill includes many of the safety measures proposed by my administration, including strong federal oversight of airline security, an expanded federal air marshals program, and important aircraft security enhancements," Bush said in a statement after the vote.

In addition to federal oversight, the bill also calls for reinforced cockpit doors, air marshals on flights and allows pilots to carry guns under certain conditions with prior authorization and training.

Earlier Thursday, a Democrat-backed measure that would have made airport security screeners federal employees was defeated by a close vote of 218 to 214.

That measure, which sought to federalize the entire airport security work force at the nation's larger airports, was identical to a measure passed in October by a 100-0 vote in the Senate.

Bush urged members of a Senate and House conference "to quickly work together to send a strong and effective bill to my desk."

Amendment added to limit liability

The passage of the GOP-supported measure may have been due in part to an amendment added at the 11th hour.

The amendment would limit the financial liability for airport security firms, airplane and steel manufacturers, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and others who might be sued by victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Democrats had criticized the provision because it would limit the liability of all companies, including those that currently screen baggage at airports

The measure, which won a strong endorsement Thursday from New York Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was added to entice wavering New York Republicans. Many are moderates who otherwise might have voted against the bill President Bush has lobbied hard to pass, according to members and staff from both parties.

In a letter sent to the 31 New York lawmakers, 12 of whom are Republican, Giuliani said the amendment would help New York "tremendously" by limiting the recovery of damages related to the hijackings and subsequent crashes to the amount of insurance that a defendant had before September 11.

"Any substitute would fail to provide the city the fiscal protection it needs from potentially limitless lawsuits," he wrote.

A similar provision designed to protect American Airlines and United Airlines -- whose jets were hijacked -- was signed into law as part of a financial assistance package for all the airlines grounded in the wake of the attacks.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, complained the provision would protect airport security firms from liability despite their record of poor performance.

"You have got to remember, these are companies that have been fined in some cases over a million dollars for their errors and omissions. These are companies that were indicted after September 11, again for their failure," Gephardt said.

"So instead of trying to hold them accountable for what they have done wrong, it seems that some in the Republican leadership want to exempt them from any accountability in the legal system for what they have done wrong."

But moderate Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert said the amendment helped him decide to support the GOP bill. He and other undecided Republicans met with Bush at the White House on Thursday morning.

Other provisions that made it into the bill to win the votes of various members include an amendment to allow musicians to carry their instruments aboard planes instead of requiring they check them into cargo holds; and a measure that allows air carriers to transport animals that are being shipped by the U.S. Postal Service.

One controversial item that was dropped from the bill would have eased restrictions on pay to airline executives. Those restrictions were part of the financial aid package for airlines passed in September. An effort to ease those curbs met fierce opposition from members of both parties and was dropped Thursday morning.

CNN Capitol Hill Producer Ted Barrett and Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl contributed to this report


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