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House, Senate wrangle over aviation security

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Majority Whip Tom DeLay Sunday defended the aviation security bill passed by the House last week as "very comprehensive" and said congressional critics were being "irresponsible" in assailing it as inadequate for protecting travelers.

"The kinds of rhetoric that's been coming out of Congress -- making people feel they're not safe to fly airplanes today -- is very irresponsible," the Texas Republican said on NBC's "Meet The Press."

"We're safer flying airplanes today than we were on September 10. We will be safer every day that goes by, because more and more strong security issues are put into place as we move along," he said.

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House Republicans, with the help of a handful of Democrats, pushed through a version of the bill that does not mandate that passenger screeners at airports be federal employees. Instead, the Bush administration could use private companies to perform security checks on passengers, with stronger federal certification and oversight.

While President Bush supports that position, the Senate unanimously passed a competing bill that would make screeners federal employees in the nation's larger airports. The Senate and House must now hammer out a compromise in a conference committee.

One of the leading critics of the House measure, Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, said Sunday that public opinion is with the Senate.

"Overwhelming majorities of the American people believe that (screening passengers) is now a law-enforcement function, and law enforcement functions, like the Border Patrol and other functions to ensure security, are federal responsibilities," McCain said on "Fox News Sunday."

"I've urged my colleagues, if they believe that it's appropriate to contract out a law-enforcement function, then perhaps we should contract out our security functions in the Capitol, which we're not going to do," he said.

But DeLay said the House bill is more comprehensive than the "terribly written" Senate measure, which he said only covers airplanes and terminals and sets up more stringent security requirements in larger airports than it does in smaller airports.

"It doesn't cover security for the perimeter, for the tarmacs, for the parking lots, for the vendors, for the caterers. It doesn't cover shipping, trains, trucks, bridges, highways," he said. "It says in the rural areas, you're going to have one kind of security and, in the big cities, you're going to have a better security in the airports."

DeLay also said the European countries tried nationalizing their aviation security workforces in the 1970s and eventually discarded the idea for a system similar to what the House approved -- strict government oversight of private employees. And because it takes three months to hire a federal worker, putting 28,000 new federal employees in place would take more than a year, he said.

Another supporter of the House bill, Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, said Sunday that putting airport security workers on the federal payroll would also make it difficult to get rid of bad employees.

"Once you hire them, it's awfully hard to fire them. And this is the kind of a job where, if someone shows up intoxicated to screen baggage, they ought to be fired on the spot," he said on CNN's "Late Edition."

While DeLay said he thinks the House action will give Bush a stronger hand in negotiating a final compromise with the Senate, some senators indicated Sunday that they are determined to stick with their position that passenger screeners be government workers.

"You can't compromise the safety of the American people," Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, said on "Meet the Press." "The private companies bid for the lowest bid. It is run by a system that is governed not by the security concerns but by the bottom line of the company."

"I think (House Republicans are) putting, frankly, a private profit ahead of public protection in doing this. They're wrong," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, said on "Late Edition." "I think the public senses it, and hopefully, we'll work out some kind of a way to get this public protection into place within the next few days."


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