WASHINGTON__ In a surprising move Thursday,Boulder democrat Rep. Mark Udall crossed party lines to vote in favor of a Republican-backed aviation security bill which passed through the House of Representatives after intense debate.
Udall joined four Colorado republicans in supporting the measure,which gives the federal government more control over airport security.
Rep. Diana DeGette,a democrat from Denver,stood alone opposing the U.S. House of Representatives bill,deeming the vote a “victory for the status quo.”
The House version,which,namely,establishes federal government oversight on hiring and firing of baggage screeners,passed 286-139. This came just minutes after the legislators voted 218-214 against a Senate-passed substitute measure which would federalize the screeners.
Although earlier this week Udall united with DeGette at a press conference to support federalizing baggage screeners,he ultimately backed the republican version.
Udall could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
His colleagues,however,were mostly pleased with Congress' move.
“I voted for this bill because I didn't want to weaken the legislation (with the substitute),” said Rep. Bob Schaffer,a Fort Collins republican. “I don't want to hand airport security over to the same government that gives us the cruel (Internal Revenue Service) … the same government that acts with such recklessness with the National Endowment for the Arts.”
Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo said the House bill gives the government tools to guard travelers. “We must ensure that our airports are as safe and secure as possible,and this bill gives the federal government the authority and power to protect the flying public,” he said in a statement.
DeGette said she is concerned the bill will not reassure travelers.
“I'm afraid this bill will do little to restore Americans' confidence in the ability to secure the safety of our skies,” she said in a release.
“I am saddened that Congress decided to place ideology above safety. Congress has voted for the status quo which clearly needed repair,” she added.
In October the Senate voted 100-0 in favor of federalizing baggage screeners. Since the House adopted its own version,the bill will now go to a conference committee. President Bush has said he prefers the House bill.
Sen. Wayne Allard also said he supports the House version,adding that he voted for the Senate bill,like many of his colleagues,simply to get things moving.
“I am in favor of more oversight,more rules and regulations,” he said. “But I don't like some of the provisions in the Senate version; I prefer the House bill.”
Meanwhile,Denver Mayor Wellington Webb said Thursday he supports any bill that will establish standardized aviation safety regulations.
“Federal oversight will mean that we will have the same standards at airports throughout the country,” he said. “Those standards are the key to increased safety.”
Both bills would establish federal regulation. The House version,however,would give the president the option of using private contractors. In other words,Bush could federalize screeners at one airport but use a private firm at another.
Schaffer said he hopes DIA would be privatized. Baggage screeners,he said,should be hired with a process similar to that of pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration establishes pilot-hiring standards,but private airlines hire and fire them.
DeGette countered that private firms have not proven themselves trustworthy.
“Studies as recently as two weeks ago showed that problems with private security companies persisted,” she said in a statement. “This bill will do nothing to insure that that changes.”
At Denver International Airport,United Airlines employs Argenbright Security Inc.,which also handles security at 46 other airports.
The British-owned company has been under scrutiny since last year when the Department of Transportation found that the company's Philadelphia branch was hiring screeners with felony records and falsifying statements about background checks,according to an October Rocky Mountain News article.
Argenbright paid more than $1.5 million in fines and restitution and pledged to change its hiring practices.
Subsequent audits exposed problems,mostly with hiring of screeners,in 13 other airports nationwide. Although DIA was not one of them,Argenbright has 193 percent turnover at the Denver airport,according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.
Argenbright's Denver office did not return calls Thursday.
Its parent company Securicor,Inc.,however,lobbied strongly for the House Republican bill.
“We agree that aviation security ought to be federalized,but not nationalized,
with strong federal standards,oversight,and enforcement,and without the airlines,” said Kenneth P. Quinn,counsel for the Aviation Security Association,in a statement.
Securicor is a member of the AVA.