WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Republican senators are girding for a fight this week over a provision of the Sept. 11 security reform bill that would give union rights to aviation security screeners employed by the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA.
They want language giving the screeners collective bargaining rights taken out of the bill the Senate will debate this week -- and will call on President Bush to veto the law if they fail.
"Forcing collective bargaining on TSA will be an operational and homeland security disaster," said Sen. James DeMint, R-S.C., in a statement Sunday to United Press International.
"I hope the Democrats will remove this misguided provision before we have to fight it out on the floor."
Draft letters calling on President Bush to veto the law if the provision makes it into the statute were circulating on Capitol Hill, according to labor lobbyists and congressional staff.
DeMint Spokesman Wesley Denton told UPI he could not comment on draft correspondence, but he confirmed the senator believed the law should be vetoed if the provision passes.
"TSA screeners already have the right to join a union and have multiple layers of workplace protections," said DeMint.
Labor unions say the new provision just ensures that the screeners have the same rights as other federal employees, and charge that the high turnover and low morale at the agency is a product of the failure of current law to ensure adequate staff representation at the decision-making table.
In an unusual move, TSA Director Edmund Hawley broke the conventional silence of officials on pending legislation to lash out at the bill. "People get very, very concerned about the security impact (of) changing from a fast and flexible security regime to one that is concrete and has to be negotiated with a union," Hawley told CQ Today. "That just does not work in the context of terrorist activity."
At the center of the looming battle, which echoes a 2002 Senate showdown over labor rights and homeland security, is an amendment proposed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut, an independent caucusing with the Democrats.
The amendment passed on a party-line vote in his committee and is now part of S4, the Improving America's Security Act, one of a clutch of security bills the Democratic leadership hopes to roll together on the Senate floor over the next two weeks.
Other bills will address rail and aviation security and emergency communications, and amendments are expected on cargo security, nuclear proliferation, and national standards for drivers' licenses.
Lieberman will be the floor manager for the debate, which both emphasizes the leverage he has as a potential defector in a 49-51 Senate, and is likely to crystallize his distance from the Democrats on Iraq if, as expected, there are efforts to make the bill a vehicle for opposition to the president's policy there.
Lieberman's labor rights provision repeals a footnote in the 2001 law setting up the TSA. The footnote gave the agency's director wide discretion to decide issues of union and other labor rights for the thousands of passenger and baggage screeners it employs.
But that discretion is essential to enable the TSA to perform its mission, argued the administration about similar language in HR 1, the House version of the Sept. 11 security bill.
"This measure seeks to reverse the flexibility given to TSA to perform its critical aviation security mission," wrote the Office of Management and Budget in a statement, adding it would "substantially diminish" officials' ability to respond to emergencies like the discovery last summer of a plot in London to bomb U.S.-bound airliners with liquid explosives.
"TSA changed the nature of employees' work -- and even the location of their work -- to flexibly respond to these emergencies," said the statement.
Critics say collective bargaining would hamstring management's ability to deploy new equipment and techniques by requiring changes to be negotiated in advance.
At the moment TSA management is able "to make hourly adjustments (to deployment etc.) in response to real-time threat intelligence and operational considerations" like weather delays, TSA Spokesman Christopher White told United Press International.
He acknowledged the provision "would not change our ability to make these (kind of deployments), but it would slow us down."
"The administration vigorously disagrees with these provisions of the bill, which were not recommended by the Sept. 11 Commission," concluded the Office of Management and Budget statement.
Unions accused the administration of scaremongering.
"There has never been a single case of union contracts preventing an emergency deployment of federal employees," said Charity Wilson, a Congressional lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees.
Wilson said federal labor relations law gave agencies broad authority to re-deploy staff in emergencies without the special exemption provided for the TSA.
"What unions negotiate about is the effects of such decisions," she said, adding that because the involvement of unions reassured employees that the selection and other processes would be fair, it "usually facilitated things happening."
GOP strategists are also making much of TSA figures about the costs of standing up a new employee relations bureaucracy -- $160 million according to White, including hiring labor relations specialists and negotiators.
GOP talking points circulating on Capitol Hill point out this is the equivalent of 3,500 screeners, or 8 percent of the total screening workforce.
Unions again played down the fears. "We believe those figures are exaggerated," said Wilson. "They are very conservative," retorted White.