WASHINGTON -- Americans will have to wait at least a week and probably much longer before Congress comes up with a plan to make U.S. airports safer.
The GOP-controlled House on Thursday night passed its own aviation security plan instead of sending a Senate plan to President Bush for approval, throwing the issue to what is expected to be a contentious House-Senate conference committee. That could spell the issue's doom.
"My greatest fear is that if it goes to a conference, it never comes out," House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said.
The House passed their version of the aviation security package by a 286-139 vote instead of the bill passed by the Senate 100-0 on Oct. 11, the one-month anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terror attacks.
The Senate bill failed to get through the House by a 218-214 vote. Had the Democratic bill passed, it would have gone directly to the president for his signature.
"I sat with the president today, and he said he is willing to wait for us to get it right," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.
After the vote, Bush said, "The American people deserve tough security standards and the House plan delivers. I urge the House and Senate to work together to send a strong and effective bill to my desk."
But battle lines were drawn immediately.
House Republicans said senators should have followed Bush's lead instead of quickly churning out their own bill and called the Senate measure flawed and hastily written.
"I was amazed to find that the Senate said, in a unified voice, 'No, Mr. President, we know better. You must do it our way," said House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas.
Senators and their House supporters were just as adamant about their measure.
"I urge conferees to strip out the special interest provisions and send the Senate measure to the president," Gephardt said after the vote. "That is the only way to ensure that American air travelers will see increased security in our airports as soon as possible."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the House bill weakens provisions in the Senate bill. "I expect my Senate colleagues to fight to restore these important security measures," said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee.
The Republican bill puts the government in control of the training and supervision of airport baggage screeners but allows the president to decide whether screeners should be public servants or private employees.
GOP conservatives strongly resisted the formation of a new federal work force of some 28,000 people.
Democrats say the current system, in which airlines contract out security functions to private companies, has failed to provide air travelers with adequate security and that screening must become a law enforcement operation.
Bush himself met GOP lawmakers Thursday morning and made calls throughout the day trying to win over the last undecided members.
In the end, eight Republicans voted for the Senate bill while six Democrats voted against.
Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, the lead Republican behind the Senate bill, said there was "terribly intense pressure" from Bush, Cheney and other Republican leaders. The president "pulled out all the stops," he said.
House Republicans insist that a compromise with the Senate can be worked out swiftly. Ganske feels differently. "I'm less than optimistic that we are going to have a very speedy conference," he said. "I just pray we don't have another aviation disaster" before they reach a deal.
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