WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congressional Democrats on Monday dropped their demand for union bargaining rights for airport screeners, hoping to revive anti-terrorism legislation that had stalled because of a presidential veto threat.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada made the announcement on the Senate floor as he called for House and Senate negotiators to begin reconciling bills implementing the July 2004 recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 commission.
The legislation has been one of the new Democratic majority's priorities, but it had stalled because of a presidential veto threat over allowing airport screeners to have collective bargaining rights.
Because of the veto threat, neither the House nor the Senate will consider the legislation if "it contains collective bargaining provisions which I have committed to drop, as has the speaker," Reid said.
The House bill passed in January, and the Senate bill passed in March.
"We want to move the 9/11 bill forward and get to conference quickly," said Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky cheered the decision. "Republicans were able to ensure our national security is a higher priority than a special-interest provision for Big Labor and succeeded in removing a dangerous provision from this bill," McConnell said.
Many screeners already belong to a union, the American Federation of Government Employees, but they don't have the right to bargain collectively.
"The fight is not over. This only makes us more determined to get rights for workers who were wrongfully denied," said John Gage, the union's president. "TSA workers deserve full bargaining rights and we will keep fighting until they get them."
The White House and Congress have already followed through on some suggestions from the 9/11 commission, including enacting a port security bill and creating a director of national intelligence to oversee the intelligence community.
The current House and Senate bills would put in place some of the unfinished recommendations, including security upgrades on railroads, airliners, buses, trucks and pipelines.
In addition, both bills also would have provided the 45,000 airport screeners with collective bargaining rights. The screeners' jobs were put under the control of the federal government when the Homeland Security Department was created after Sept. 11.
The House bill would have granted bargaining rights and whistleblower protection to airport screeners, while the Senate bill would have just granted bargaining rights to screeners on non-pay issues and whistleblower protection.
The White House objected to both provisions, saying that collective bargaining rights for screeners were not recommended by the 9/11 commission. It also said the Homeland Security Department must have no impediments to the flexibility it needs to move workers around in an emergency.
That echoes the original debate on creating the Homeland Security Department, the parent agency of the Transportation Security Administration. One of the contentious issues was the extent to which the new agency's employees should have union bargaining rights.
Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., voted against the bill because it didn't include collective bargaining rights; he subsequently lost his Senate seat to Republican Saxby Chambliss, who suggested Cleland was soft on terrorism.
The Senate bill is S 4, the House bill is HR 1.
For bill text:
American Federation of Government Employees:
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