June 25, 2011

Bill aimed at TSA's searches in trouble

The House speaker calls it a "publicity stunt," and the lieutenant governor says it has some merit.

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AUSTIN -- A bill to prohibit intrusive airport pat-downs appeared in jeopardy Friday after House Speaker Joe Straus denounced it as a "publicity stunt" and said it will not be brought to the House floor in its present form.

But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer, reiterated support for the legislation, saying a Senate version is expected to win committee approval Monday.

"I believe this is an important issue that deserves consideration by both the House and the Senate before we adjourn," Dewhurst said.

Similar legislation died during the regular session, which ended May 30, but Gov. Rick Perry revived the issue this week by including it in the special session.

Lawmakers are still grappling with several major issues as the 30-day session heads toward adjournment Wednesday.

Perry's spokesman Mark Miner said the governor still supports the bill. "He put it on the call," Miner said.

The Transportation Security Administration, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, has vigorously opposed the bill and has threatened legal action if it becomes law.

Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, the bill's House sponsor, defended HB41 but acknowledged that Straus' opposition appears to doom it in the House.

"At this point, it's doubtful," he said. "It was a miracle that it got this far."

Asked about Straus' assertion that the bill is a misguided publicity stunt, Simpson said: "That's not been my purpose all along. My purpose is to stop what I believe is out-of-control federal bureaucracy exercising tyrannies."

The bill, as drafted, would expand the federal definition of "official oppression" to prohibit federal employees from improperly touching a person's private areas, even through clothing, without probable cause. Violations would constitute a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

Senate moves ahead

Dewhurst said he has been working with the Texas attorney general's office, which has recommended several changes in the bill to address constitutional issues.

The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee has scheduled a hearing at 10 a.m. Monday to consider the Senate version of the bill, SB29, by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.

"I am greatly disappointed that negotiations on this bill have broken down so badly in the House at this critical point in the special session," Patrick said.

"If the House can resolve their differences, there is still time if they can pass it to the Senate before Monday."

Straus said a bipartisan group of senior House members had tried unsuccessfully to work with Simpson to find an acceptable compromise.

"I know he'll be disappointed, but the bill, as it's written, is not going to be called up on the floor of the House," Straus told reporters.

An unenforceable law?

Straus said the proposed law is "unenforceable" and is "misdirected" at uniformed security personnel instead of Washington bosses who set policy.

"The bill, without some serious revisions, appears to me to be nothing more than a ill-advised publicity stunt," Straus said. Straus said he believes that the bill would make the Legislature a "laughingstock" if it becomes law.

Straus said House leaders are preparing a resolution to deal with the issue, for consideration next week.

Simpson said the House speaker asked him to remove language that specifically described private parts. But Simpson said he resisted.

"I told him that would gut the bill," Simpson said.

Feds ready to fight

U.S. Attorney John E. Murphy, in a letter to Straus and Dewhurst dated during the regular session, said the federal government would seek an emergency stay of the statute and could be forced to cancel flights in Texas if the law interfered with the enforcement of airport security.

Murphy contended that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution would prohibit Texas from regulating federal agents or passing a statute that conflicts with federal law.

The TSA, which has come under congressional scrutiny for its airport security practices, took steps to soften criticism this week by announcing policy changes aimed at reducing pat-downs on children.

Perry called the announcement "a step in the right direction to regain the trust of American families" and said he is looking forward to working with lawmakers "on related legislation that will accomplish these goals."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294

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