WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Wednesday backed a Democratic-sponsored measure that would give new labor protections to airport screeners while seeking to address White House concerns that federal authorities have flexibility to respond to security threats.
On a mostly party-line vote of 51-48, the U.S. Senate passed the amendment drafted by Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, that would provide screeners the same labor bargaining rights as U.S. border patrol and customs agents.
The amendment was added to a bill that would implement remaining security recommendations from the bipartisan commission created after the September 11 attacks, refine others and establish new ones. The commission did not take a position on collective bargaining by airport workers.
The amendment would give federal authorities the flexibility to respond to emergencies, but that did not assuage administration concerns.
Republicans argue the provision is payback to labor unions that supported Democratic candidates. The White House is threatening to veto the legislation over the provision.
In a letter to Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said collective bargaining rights are incompatible with the “successful performance” of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
“TSA must be able to react nimbly, not only to the ever-evolving security threats that confront our nation, but also to changing air carrier schedules, weather disruptions, and special events that draw large number of passengers to particular airports,” he wrote.
McCaskill said the new labor provision would improve security by lifting the morale of airport workers and reducing a high turnover rate for baggage and airport screeners.
She said her amendment makes clear these workers could not bargain for higher pay and that the TSA has “complete authority” to mandate changes in times of emergency.
The Senate rejected a compromise offered by Sen. Susan Collins that would have given more limited rights to airport workers.
The Senate could vote on the security bill early next week. The House version also includes new worker bargaining rights and the two sides would have to work out their differences.