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White House, congressional leaders agree on airline assistance package

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congressional leaders and White House officials agreed early Friday morning on an airline assistance package that includes a $15 billion financial boost and a victims compensation fund designed to limit expensive lawsuits that might otherwise bankrupt American and United Airlines -- the two companies whose planes were hijacked and crashed last week by terrorists.

The negotiators agreed to immediately give $5 billion in cash and $10 billion in loan guarantees to the airline industry in an effort to keep several major carriers from collapsing. The bill could be on the House floor as early as Friday and on the Senate floor soon after.

The agreement, signed off on by House and Senate leaders in both parties, was negotiated with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels into the night, following President Bush's address to a joint session of Congress. It is to be presented to rank and file members Friday, congressional leaders said.

The White House, also agreed to use $3 billion of the $40 billion Congress already approved in emergency spending to upgrade airport and airline security.

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In addition, the lawmakers agreed to a White House request to provide government insurance to the airlines so they can keep their planes flying at a time private insurance companies have deemed coverage too risky. In an attempt to limit liability for airlines and other businesses, the agreement sets up a government-sponsored victims compensation fund for the families of those killed at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and for people who suffered physical injuries there.

Victims and their families who forego their right to go to court will be eligible for government compensation, which will be determined by a special master appointed by the Attorney General.

The special master will decide what is fair compensation and move quickly to pay it and Congress will not limit how much the special master will pay out.

The agreement does not include passengers on the ill-fated flights who will still be able to sue the United and American Airlines under their pre-existing liability rules.

"We're talking about a finite group of people here," and aide said. "About 6,000 dead and about 6,000 injured."

The government would pay the claim, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said.

"People still would have the right to go to court," Daschle said after the meeting. But he said if people choose to go to the special master they forgo their right to sue in court.

Congressional aides explained victims would be assured compensation by going the special master route but might not win huge awards that juries might hand out.

Although the leadership on both sides of the aisle pushed for the victims' compensation fund to be part of the package, some were concerned about the cost and the speed with which the legislation was being written.

Aides in the meeting said some lawmakers, who fear the program could cost the government "hundreds of billions of dollars," wanted to limit the pool of money available to the special master but were did not succeed.

At the meeting, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Oklahoma, urged lawmakers to slow down and not rush a complicated package through the Congress. "My preference was to go slower," Nickles told CNN, "we might come up with something similar in a couple of weeks, but we wouldn't be rushing. We're legislating too fast here."

"I want to do it right," he said, "You're talking about big things, you're talking about billions of dollars."

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