Senate debate keeps aviation safety package grounded

The Senate failed Wednesday to move ahead on a bill that would bolster security in the nation's aviation system, putting off a vote on the measure and delaying announcement of security upgrades proposed by federal transportation officials.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta was scheduled to announce security initiatives put together by a pair of task forces made up of his staff and industry experts. Instead, he spent part of Wednesday afternoon on Capitol Hill meeting with Senate leaders as they attempted to reach a consensus on an aviation security package.

The Senate bill would require that federal workers provide security at the country's major airports and calls for installation of stronger cockpit doors to thwart hijackers in the wake of last month's terrorist attacks. The measure also would place sky marshals on many U.S. airline flights, would place Mineta's department in charge of air security and institute an airline ticket tax to pay for new security measures.

Among the hurdles for the legislation is the proposal to make air security a federal matter, which some legislators call unnecessary bureaucracy and others suggest could leave holes in security as minimum-wage workers quit before the end of any transition period.

Progress also was slowed as some lawmakers proposed attaching amendments addressing security on the rail system and an economic assistance package for airline employees laid off after Sept. 11.

Quick vote urged

The bipartisan group in the Senate Commerce Committee that put together the bill urged a quick vote on a streamlined version that addresses air security only. The public needs an immediate confidence boost that a move to upgrade security on passenger jetliners would provide, several senators said.

"Last week millions of Americans still were not flying on airplanes because they don't believe they're safe," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking GOP member on the committee and a sponsor of the bill. "That's a fact."

The committee's chairman, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), said it would be a shame if a vote on the bill was delayed until after the Columbus Day weekend.

"It would be a public embarrassment," said Hollings, who was among those calling for a vote by late Thursday.

Supporters of extending unemployment and insurance benefits for airline workers include Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).

Senate aides and administration officials were expected to negotiate through the evening Wednesday. But Daschle told McCain and Hollings that he planned to begin the parliamentary process to shut down a filibuster, forcing the bill through the chamber by next week.

The House is working on a package dealing with upgrades to aviation security.

The White House on Tuesday signaled it was willing to move closer to a compromise on making people who screen baggage federal workers at most of the nation's airports.

President Bush had earlier called for those jobs to remain in the private sector, suggesting improvements could be made by requiring higher federal standards in the contracting process. But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Tuesday indicated Bush was willing to work with congressional leaders on the matter.

Announcement rolled back

The slow legislative progress is expected to push Mineta's announcement back until Friday, his staff said. He was to detail the work of his task forces, which were hastily called together to consider security in the air and in airport terminals after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

The Department of Transportation's plans also call for cabin crews to be armed with non-lethal weapons and trained in self-defense. They also would require better federal control over the screening of passengers and their baggage, and sweeps of cabins between flights.

Under the new guidelines, if any situation in the cabin were to be perceived as a threat by the flight crew, the cockpit door would remain locked until the plane could land at the nearest suitable airfield. The most immediate change would be limiting carry-on luggage to one bag for each passenger.

Many of the nation's air carriers have indicated broad support for security upgrades.

Jill Zuckman of the Tribune's Washington bureau contributed to this report.