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House panel tackles homeland security bill

'Make our people safe'

From Ted Barrett

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Arguing the original timetable was unrealistic, a House panel voted Friday to delay by one year a deadline for the nation's airports to have in place explosive detection systems for baggage.

The decision to extend the deadline to December 31, 2003 was a reversal by the Republican-led Select Committee on Homeland Security, which hours earlier had voted to keep the deadline put in place when Congress created the Transportation Security Administration in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The reversal came after Republican J.C. Watts of Oklahoma said he was persuaded by arguments made by Committee Chairman Dick Armey, R-Texas, that more time was needed.

The current deadline of December 31, 2002 is "totally unrealistic," Watts concluded.

Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, joined Watts in switching her vote and the new deadline was approved 6-3. One Democrat, Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, voted with the GOP.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said she was disappointed by the sudden reversal.

The original deadline "was the one ray of hope emanating from this room," she said.

The issue of the deadline is not settled. The full House has yet to consider the bill, and the measure has not been taken up by the Senate yet.

The TSA, which is charged with placing expensive explosive-detecting machines in all airports, has said it will meet the original deadline. But airline and airport operators have raised doubts.

TSA Director John McGaw was forced from office Thursday, in part because of congressional concerns that the TSA would not meet the deadline, members of Congress said.

Armey acknowledged that changing the deadline might "not be the popular thing to do," but argued Congress should slow the process and allow new, more effective technology to be developed before insisting the machines be put in place.

Armey said the strict deadline was "born out of the passion of the moment and fears of the day" when Congress created the TSA.

Instead, Congress should act on "the cold, calculated, scientific, technical calculations of what indeed is possible to make our people safe," he said.

But Rep. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, who offered the amendment to maintain the original deadline, said "awaiting even better technology starts us down a dangerous path."

"The deadline was necessary to ensure the security of our aviation system, and it still is," he said.

The committee is considering legislation that would essentially approve Bush's proposal for creating the new department. Only minor changes to the Bush plan are expected to be adopted.

The full House is scheduled to vote on the measure next week.




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