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The top leaders in Congress agreed Sunday that the federal government might have to take over airport security nationwide to reassure Americans that air travel is safe.

"We have to work out who pays for what part of it," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.

"But I think we must convince the American people very quickly that it's safe to go to airports and to get on airplanes and fly as we did before Sept. 11, and I think the federal government has the central responsibility to do that," Gephardt said.

He joined Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D.; House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.; and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Many lawmakers, industry representatives and watchdog groups have long said the government should replace security companies paid by the airlines and handle security itself.

Jane Garvey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, has estimated that a government takeover of screening passengers before they board planes would cost $1.8 billion a year.

"I'm not sure how we're going to fund this. It might be the government's responsibility to do that. We haven't made that decision yet," Hastert said. "But I think the American people deserve no less than the most competent people to be there at those gates to go through and check individuals and luggage and to make sure that the American public is safe."

The FAA is developing new rules for security companies to follow in training workers who screen passengers at airport security checkpoints, but many in Congress want to go further.

"I think that would be my inclination, as well, to think that federal control is the best way to do this, at least for a period of time," Daschle said. "Maybe there will be another way that would be equally as effective down the road. But right now, I can't think of a better alternative."

Lott said he hoped that Congress could get around to security issues in "the next 10 days or so."

The lawmakers said the federal government should mandate better screening of passengers and baggage at airports by trained professionals. Exactly how to pay for such heightened security remained unclear, they said, although options include federal money or new surcharges on airline tickets.

Lawmakers said restoring confidence in air travel was key to boosting the sluggish economy following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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