Policy

Congress Turns to Airport Security After Brussels Attack

Republican leader predicts quick action

Heavily armed police patrol Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Tuesday in the wake of the terror attacks in Brussels, Belgium. New York and Washington stepped up security in the wake of the attacks. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks in Brussels, congressional leaders vowed to push forward legislation intended to make air travel more secure, including efforts to expand screening of airport workers here and enhance security measures at airports abroad.  

Rep. John Katko, R-NY, had just last week introduced legislation that would ensure that passengers and cargo arriving in the United States are properly screened before leaving foreign countries.  On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., predicted Tuesday that the proposal could see quick movement. “I have looked extensively at airport security vulnerabilities and worked both to combat foreign terrorist travel and to close global counterterrorism gaps," said Katko, who is chairman of a Homeland Security subcommittee overseeing aviation. "We have moved important reforms through the House, but it is clear that we must redouble our efforts.”  

Katko’s bill would allow the Transportation Security Administration to donate equipment for security screening at foreign airports that are departure points for direct travel to the United States, as well as grant TSA the ability to address gaps in the screening procedures at airports abroad. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from New York who is no. 3 in party leadership, touted a proposal from Senate Democrats to enhance domestic airport security as part of an Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. "We're going to need to improve TSA officer screening so that authorities put greater emphasis on counter terrorism training for the screeners, and that we sufficiently fund all of our TSA training,” Schumer said at a news conference Tuesday. "Second we're going to tighten up the vetting and oversight of aviation workers who have access to security areas." Schumer said that push would also include efforts to keep guns from being smuggled by airport employees and to pay for airport perimeter improvements. Bipartisan legislation that accomplishes many of these goals has already cleared the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and could move even more quickly even before the debate over a long-term FAA extension reaches the floor. A stopgap extension cleared by the House on Monday gives lawmakers until mid-July to address that matter.

Since 9/11, the government and airline passengers through, ticket fees, have spent heavily on beefing up airport and aircraft security. But some lawmakers don’t believe enough has been done, especially over the threat posed by bombs hidden in bags or cargo. More than 900 million people flew domestically and internationally last year on U.S. airlines, government figures show. On Tuesday, major U.S. carriers canceled or diverted some service between the United States and Belgium.

Among the goals of the bipartisan bill from the leaders of the Commerce Committee and its sub panel on aviation are to increase random inspections of airport workers and the use of so-called red teams that try to sneak materials through security. “In light of troubling reports about the serious gaps in the airport employee screening process, we must work to ensure the safety of commercial aviation and the flying public by requiring the TSA to conduct appropriate oversight of airport personnel," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who is chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security.  

Aside from the airline security measures already in motion, congressional leaders generally offered condolences to the victims of the coordinated attacks in Brussels and stressed the need to work with European allies and solidify the country’s resolve to combat the Islamic State. The terrorist group took responsibility for three explosions that left at 31 dead and injured nearly 200 others. The responses from Congress echoed those roughly four months earlier, when lawmakers scrambled to respond to the terrorist attacks in Paris , France in November. Those events led to a bill that would have enhanced refugee screening, but it failed to cross a procedural hurdle in the Senate. Some lawmakers said the Brussels attacks should cause Congress to revisit that legislation. “We need to look honestly at our vulnerabilities here at home, including the real threat that we cannot safely screen out ISIS terrorists infiltrating refugee flows,” said Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a GOP presidential contender was more forceful, saying in a statement, “We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence. We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” Cruz said the nation is at war with the Islamic State and called for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to wage a campaign against the terror group. "NATO should join with the United States in utterly destroying ISIS, and I would note that NATO is ready to act in way that our president is not," Cruz told reporters. But Cruz and others did not call on Congress to approve an Authorization for the Use of Military Force to fight ISIS, something President Barack Obama requested after the December attacks in San Bernardino, Calif.  

Some of the top proponents of such a measure -- including Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. -- were mum on the issue in their statements following the Brussels attacks. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, an Iraq War veteran, called for Congress to take up Graham’s an authorization proposal, which would grant the president broad authority to use force against ISIS. Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has said Congress should update an authorization, but noted the challenge for such a measure would be garnering bipartisan support without tying the hands of the next president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has expressed similar concerns.

Contact Lesniewski at nielslesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @nielslesniewski.

Contact Bowman at  bridgetbowman@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc .

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