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House Panel Votes to Extend Deadline on Baggage Screening

Security: Year's delay is urged in GOP plan, which cites problems faced by major airports.

July 20, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — House Republicans pushed Friday to extend by one year the legal deadline for installing bomb detection machines to scan baggage at the nation's airports.

Under the proposal, added to a bill to create a Department of Homeland Security, the current deadline of Dec. 31 for installing the machines would be pushed back one year.

A bipartisan House leadership panel approved the proposal on a 6 to 3 vote, with Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) joining five Republicans in favor.

The panel's action gave fresh evidence of mounting troubles for the government's aviation security initiative. This week, the first head of the Transportation Security Administration was forced to resign amid widespread complaints about the agency's performance since its launch earlier this year.

Supporters of the Republican proposal said major airports across the country face huge difficulty meeting the ambitious bag-screening deadline set when overwhelming majorities in Congress voted last year to federalize airport security. They also said that if the current deadline is kept, airports may be forced to buy large, expensive bomb-detection machines that will soon be outdated.

Rep. J. C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), who brokered the proposal, called the year-end 2002 deadline "totally unrealistic." Watts and others said airports need to be given a chance to find and install the best bomb-screening technology while imposing the least hassle on travelers.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said Congress had misjudged when it set the Dec. 31 deadline. He predicted major airports in Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and elsewhere would be unable to comply with the bomb-detection requirement by year's end. He said a deadline extension is "the right and necessary thing."

Three leading Democrats on the committee denounced the proposal. Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said it broke faith with a jittery public that expects the government to tighten air security flaws exposed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Reflecting the high political stakes involved in security decisions, the GOP proposal generated a sharp exchange.

"I would hope you would not think I'm going to put anybody at risk, including my three wonderful kids," Watts said, noting that his family travels by air frequently.

Menendez replied: "It saddens me too that my family, my neighborhoods and my constituents are at risk--because that's what this amendment does."

It was not immediately clear what position the Bush administration would take on the proposed deadline extension. This month, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta told lawmakers the government is committed to meeting all of its aviation security mandates.

Baggage screening was just one friction point Friday in a wide-ranging debate about the security department President Bush proposed last month.

At the end of a daylong review, the House Select Committee on Homeland Security approved on a party-line vote of 5 to 4 a bill that would authorize the most significant reorganization of the government in more than 50 years. Democrats were incensed about Republican-crafted provisions on federal employee relations, tort reform and other matters.

The select panel, made up of party leaders, was formed to assemble a homeland security bill after taking recommendations from a dozen House committees, from Agriculture to Ways and Means.

With the panel's approval, the legislation to implement President Bush's homeland security plan now moves to the House floor. There, lawmakers are expected to stage a lengthy debate next week with several potentially divisive amendments. Meantime, a Senate committee is moving ahead with its own version that differs in several respects.

While it is unclear how fast the Senate will act, passage of the bill in the House does not appear to be in doubt. The House Republican leadership is likely to draw at least a simple majority for its proposal.

But it remains to be seen whether the House bill will draw the sort of overwhelming bipartisan support that other anti-terrorism bills have enjoyed in the months since Sept. 11.

Criticizing the Republican bill as a "step backwards," House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) promised a floor fight to amend it.

Armey, who drafted the bill, called for bipartisanship as Congress weighs a new Cabinet department that would draw an estimated 164,000 employees from 22 different federal agencies, including the Coast Guard, Customs Service, Transportation Security Administration, and Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"As long as we are committed to arriving at the same destination, we will in fact arrive together," Armey said.

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