A bill to end direct federal control of National and Dulles International airports ran into a sharply skeptical House panel whose chairman startled many yesterday by calling the measure's principal Senate sponsor "a racist."
The charge by Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.) was directed at Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.), and it was indicative of the acrimonious reception the Senate-passed measure received from members of the House subcommittee on aviation.
"I'd like to hear from your senators, both of them," Mineta told the Virginia officials, including Gov. Gerald L. Baliles and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). "I've written to the junior senator Trible and he has not responded to my criticisms when I called him a racist."
Mineta's unusual outburst came as his subcommitttee opened hearings on the Reagan administration's proposed transfer plan and it further indicated that the bill, which passed the Senate in April, faces serious obstacles in the House.
The California member of Congress, of Japanese ancestry, disclosed yesterday that he wrote Trible last year to demand an apology from Trible after the senator told an interviewer last year that "Asians have no value for life." When asked yesterday whether he had received a reply, Mineta, visibly angry, said he had not.
Trible, who was not at the hearing, later released a statement that said, "I am mystified that someone with whom I had a congenial relationship for six years as a colleague in the House would make such an outrageous indictment. I decided not to dignify his letter with a response."
The exchange detracted from attention on the transfer plan, first proposed two years ago by Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole. It has caused a sharp split between Virginia and Maryland politicians.
Maryland officials oppose the transfer, saying it will put their state-owned Baltimore-Washington International Airport at an unfair competitive disadvantage.
"Maryland is completely prepared to compete," Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes said yesterday. "We want to compete, but we want to do it on a fair basis."
Maryland officials and members of the House subcommittee said yesterday that they questioned the cost of the proposed lease of the airports. The Senate measure calls for a 50-year lease to a regional authority and it requires the authority to pay $44 million to the federal government. The price tag represents the taxpayers' investment in the airports that has not yet been paid back to the Treasury.
The figure, many times less than what the price of the land would be if it were sold for development, has caused unhappiness in the House, many of whose members want to retain federal control of the airports.
"I think we have an obligation to at least get something back for the taxpayers," said Rep. Glenn Anderson (D-Calif.). "I don't blame the governor of Virginia. If he can pull this off he's a lot smarter than we are."
All parties agreed that both airports, the only commercial airports operated by the federal government, need major capital improvements, but that is practically all that they agreed upon.
Mineta introduced a bill last week that would establish a federal corporation to run the two airports, in part, he said, because many House members have indicated that they are unwilling to yield federal control.
The Mineta bill would allow the federal corporation to raise money by issuing bonds, bypassing the complex congressional appropriations process.
Mineta's proposal met with resistance from Dole, who said that it would not allow for enough funds or enough speed to improve the airports. "I urge you not to lose this opportunity," Dole told the subcommittee. "The proposal to keep the airports in the federal bureaucracy, operating them as a federal corporation, could not produce results as quickly, if at all.