Deal Sought on Airport Screeners Bargaining Rights

Amid differences on collective-bargaining rights for airport screeners, some Senate Republicans are attempting to craft compromise language in hopes of completing legislation to implement recommendations from the Sept. 11 commission.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced a substitute amendment Wednesday to legislation (S 4) approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In addition to the Sept. 11 recommendations, the substitute amendment incorporates rail security (S 184), emergency communications (S 385) and aviation security measures (S 509) approved by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. It also includes a draft mass transit security measure approved by the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

On Thursday, the Senate likely will consider an amendment by Jim DeMint, R-S.C., that would remove a provision in the bill giving Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees collective-bargaining rights and greater whistleblower protections.

According to aides, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has attempted to come up with a compromise that would ensure that TSA screeners have whistleblower protections but would not give the screeners all of the collective-bargaining rights currently in the bill.

Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security panel, introduced the provision in a Feb. 15 committee markup but has not been a part of those negotiations.

DeMint signaled Wednesday that he would not stand in the way of a compromise on TSA personnel management, stating that the whistleblower provision in the bill would largely mandate protections already in place. The provision "doesn't have to be under the collective-bargaining umbrella," he said.

The dispute over collective bargaining is reminiscent of a similar battle in 2002, when Republicans successfully fought to give the Homeland Security Department strong managerial controls over employees.

Democrats contend that the proposed changes to the screeners' personnel structure would improve homeland security by lowering employee attrition rates and boosting morale.

"Personnel management . . . at the TSA has been troubled since its inception," Lieberman said. "To me, it is correcting an inequity that exists in current law. I honestly don't know why anyone would oppose it."

In a statement of administration policy Wednesday, the White House Office of Management and Budget threatened a veto of the entire bill, contending that it would bar the Homeland Security Department from effectively assigning its screeners in the event of heightened threat.

"These provisions . . . would significantly diminish the department's ability to respond quickly to security threats and would ultimately reduce transportation security," the statement said.

In other action Wednesday on the bill, the Senate adopted, 94-2, an amendment sponsored by DeMint that would bar certain felons from secure areas of U.S. seaports. Also adopted, 58-37, was an amendment by Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, that would allow the Homeland Security secretary to modify which types of felons would be barred.

In the House, the Homeland Security Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection Subcommittee will mark up a draft bill Thursday that would require the Homeland Security secretary to establish regulations for rail and mass transit security within a year of its enactment. The House-passed Sept. 11 bill (HR 1) does not contain rail and mass transit security language, so this measure would give negotiators their own language for a House- Senate conference.

Under the draft bill, "high risk" and "medium risk" transit systems would have to submit vulnerability assessments and security plans to the secretary for approval.

The measure also would establish new grant programs for rail and mass transit security from fiscal 2008 to 2011: for rail, $2.4 billion; for mass transit, $3.7 billion; and for buses, $87 million.

A GOP committee aide said Republicans likely will offer at least six amendments at the panel markup, including language on truck security, whistleblower protections and information protection.

Source: CQ Today Round-the-clock coverage of news from Capitol Hill. ©2007 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.