WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats said Tuesday they will push proposals to boost security at airports, train stations and other transportation hubs in response to attacks by the Islamic State in Brussels and elsewhere.
The initiatives outlined by Democratic senators would double from 30 to 60 the number of government "viper teams" that stop and search suspicious passengers in public areas before screening, often using bomb-sniffing dogs. They also want more federal grants to train law enforcement officers in how to prepare for and respond to shootings at vulnerable targets such as transportation hubs and other "soft targets."
"What happened in Europe must serve as a wakeup call for the United States," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 2 Democratic leader.
Democrats plan to add the ideas to an aviation policy bill under consideration in the Senate, along with a bipartisan measure to tighten the screening of workers who have access to airport restricted areas.
The screening bill, passed by the Senate commerce committee in December, would give the Transportation Security Administration ready access to additional terrorism-related databases maintained by the intelligence community when vetting airport workers. It also would let TSA conduct real-time, continuous criminal records checks through the FBI and expand the list of criminal convictions that would make a potential airport worker ineligible for security clearance.
Another bill passed by the House and the commerce committee last year with bipartisan support seeks to expand the number of passengers enrolled in TSA's expedited clearance programs by giving the agency the ability to vet more people. It also is expected to be offered for inclusion in the aviation bill.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who joined Democrats at the news conference, endorsed the proposals. He said the U.S. has no intelligence to indicate violent extremists are plotting a Brussels-style attack in the U.S., but it is important to remain vigilant against "self-radicalized lone actors" at public places and events.
On March 22, 35 people — including three suicide bombers — were killed and 300 injured in bombings at a Brussels airport and subway station. In October, a charter flight operated by a Russian airline, Metrojet, exploded after departure from Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport in Egypt, killing all 224 people aboard. U.S. authorities suspect the cause was a bomb.
The aviation bill would extend the Federal Aviation Administration's authority to operate, due to expire July 15, through Oct. 1, 2017. It also contains provisions that lawmakers have been working on for more than four years to address aviation issues, including greater access for drones to the national airspace and protections for airline passengers chafing at fees for basic services such as checked bags and ticket changes.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Tuesday that he would prefer to deal separately with the security bills that have already been approved by the committee. The proposals have wide support and are expectedly to easily pass the Senate. However, he didn't say he'd oppose their inclusion in the aviation bill.
"I will pursue every option to enact these improvements and will vigorously oppose any effort to water down the security enhancements that passed the commerce committee," he said.
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