AUSTIN -- Another episode of Texas vs. the feds is unfolding in the waning days of the special legislative session over a bill that would prohibit federal TSA agents from conducting intrusive security searches at Texas airports.
Gov. Rick Perry, a potential presidential contender known for bashing the federal government, added the legislation Monday to the special session agenda. On Tuesday, the Transportation Security Administration strongly suggested that it is prepared to take legal action if the measure becomes law.
The bill would expand the legal definition of "official oppression" to include federal employees who touch private areas of travelers' bodies, even through clothing, without probable cause.
The issue was one of the most explosive of the regular session, prompting supporters to march through the Texas Capitol and yell from the Senate gallery when the bill was close to dying.
Deadline is next week
Given a second life in the special session, the legislation could be on track for passage if time doesn't run out. Special sessions last up to 30 days, and this one is to end no later than next Wednesday.
Some state officials and lawmakers have offered anecdotes to illustrate what they say is inappropriate or invasive behavior by TSA inspectors.
State Rep. Barbara Nash, R-Arlington, said she has thought several times that TSA inspectors went too far in security patdowns. Recently, she said, a female inspector felt "all the way up" the outside of her dress, in back and front.
"It made me angry. ... it was not something I would want to happen to someone else," Nash said.
At the other end of the political spectrum, state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, one of the most liberal members of the House, was also critical of TSA procedures.
"I definitely think the way TSA is implementing their responsibilities is invasive of people's privacy," he said. Burnam supported the legislation in the regular session but said he was uncertain whether he will remain a supporter, saying he was "put off" by Perry's decision to include it in the special session.
"This whole special session is almost disgusting," Burnam said. "It's all about his candidacy for the presidency. It's not about what's good for Texas."
The Republican governor has made several high-profile appearances lately, expanding national speculation about a presidential candidacy.
Embracing legislation to rein in a federal agency such as the TSA would presumably play well among Tea Party activists and falls in line with Perry's frequent denunciations of Washington overreach. Perry and other Texas political leaders have repeatedly assailed President Barack Obama's Democratic administration from environmental policy to healthcare.
The TSA issued statements opposing the bill in the regular session and threatened Tuesday to renew its opposition to it.
"Should a bill pass that limits the ability of TSA and its employees to perform its responsibilities and jeopardizes the safety of the public," a TSA statement said, "we will take whatever legal action is appropriate to ensure travelers are safe when they fly from Texas or any other state."
TSA officials have suggested that they would seek an emergency stay of the new law or possibly cancel flights where they couldn't ensure passenger safety.
TSA screeners use security measures that include metal detectors, body scanners known as advanced imaging technology and pat-downs. TSA officials say that only about 3 percent of passengers are given pat-downs.
"Current intelligence tells us that terrorists are seeking to use well-concealed improvised explosive devices made completely of plastics, liquids and gels, which are designed to circumvent metal detectors," the TSA statement said. "Advanced imaging technology and pat downs are currently the most effective way to detect these type of threats."
House vote scheduled
The House is scheduled to vote on the bill Friday. Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, said he has 112 co-authors in the 150-member House, including 32 Democrats.
"This is not a partisan issue," said Simpson, who wrote Perry an impassioned letter on Father's Day asking him to include the bill in the special session. "This is an issue ...where the government is violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects the people from unreasonable government searches."
The chief architect of the bill in the Senate is Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who is also optimistic.
"We have the votes and they're solid," he said. "We'll pass it out of the Senate when the bill reaches the floor."
Patrick said he doesn't expect the bill to come up for a vote in the Senate before Monday or Tuesday. Although that is getting close to the session adjournment, "I don't think we'll run out of time," Patrick said.
During the regular session, the bill provoked a skirmish between Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Patrick accused Dewhurst of influencing members to reject the measure after the TSA registered its opposition. But Dewhurst praised Perry's decision to include the bill in the special session.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294