WASHINGTON — As lawmakers quarreled over whether airports should hire more private baggage screeners, a bill sat on President Barack Obama’s desk this week that would answer that overarching question.

The legislators’ inquiry: How should the Transportation Security Administration proceed with the controversial Screening Partnership Program, which allows airports to “opt out” of employing TSA agents and instead recruit private workers?

Before a House Homeland Security subcommittee Tuesday, TSA Administrator John Pistole said he would be open to accepting more applications for the post-9/11 initiative, which turned the page on decades of individual airlines using their own screeners. However, Pistole told lawmakers he will only green-light contracts that provide a “clear and substantial advantage” to the federal alternative.

A provision in a bill now at the White House makes it easier for private companies to land airport security contracts.

Pistole estimated private screeners can cost up to 9 percent more than their TSA counterparts, although their job performance is comparable.

Pistole stopped accepting applications for the private screening program in January 2011. At that time, 16 airports were using private workers at security checkpoints.

During a two-year pilot phase after 9/11, the TSA stationed contract employees at five major hubs, including San Francisco and Kansas City international airports. At the end of that trial term, Pistole opened up applications to any of the 450 airports overseen by the TSA.

The airports that have since joined the program are mostly small regional airports, with a concentration of seven participating sites in Montana.

Democrats have remained hesitant to make any more airports eligible for private screening, saying the maneuver is too costly and complicates intelligence sharing. Republicans, on the other hand, have claimed the initiative generates job growth and thins out an unnecessarily bulky federal workforce.

On Monday, lawmakers put a new kink into the private-screening debate when the Senate passed a long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. Language in that bill makes it harder for Pistole to reject airports’ applications to seek contract employees.

“Obviously the administrator will have to follow the law,” said committee spokesman Adam Comis. “And obviously it changes things a little.”

The bill, also approved by the House on Friday, would place a time limit of 120 days on the TSA decision to accept or deny an application. It would also require Pistole to provide greater justification for striking down an application, including why the private company would not be cost-effective or a just-as-safe option.

Expected to be signed by President Barack Obama this month, the reauthorization bill cast a cloud over Tuesday’s hearing.

“The opportunity to debate this whole thing might be a moot point,” said Jeff Price, a Denver-based airport security consultant who has published a textbook on the topic.

The legislation visibly irked some members at the House hearing, with the top Democrat on the transportation security subcommittee calling out the Senate for not seeking House input on a bill dealing with the TSA.

“That’s called midnight legislating — in the dark, no transparency and adhering to the voices of one tune,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

In a news release Friday, Jackson-Lee complained that subcommittee members were shut out of the process leading up to the House passing its version of the FAA bill.

“Unfortunately, it appears [this] hearing will come up a day late and a dollar short,” she said at the statement’s conclusion.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., recalled sending a letter to House Speaker John Boehner asking for the House Homeland Security committee to have a greater say in the FAA reauthorization bill when it went to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate. Even with the signature of committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., homeland security members were “denied a seat at the table,” Thompson said.

“Apparently, under this Republican leadership, even when you have jurisdiction, you get left out,” Thompson said at Tuesday’s hearing.

In a prepared statement, he dinged Congress for trying to “micromanage the SPP by stripping the administrator of his discretion” to pick and choose airports’ applications for private screening.

Not every committee member was dissatisfied with the legislative action.

Last year, subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and King introduced a bill that would require the TSA to provide a written statement to Congress if it denies an application. At Tuesday’s hearing, Rogers said he was “pleased” that similar language was incorporated in the House version of the FAA reauthorization bill.

During the hearing, Rogers asked Pistole about where he sees the Screening Partnership Program going, especially now that the application process is about to become easier for interested firms.

Pistole’s response? “I frankly don’t know what it’ll look like.”

In an email Wednesday, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein clarified Pistole’s position.

“In early 2011, Administrator made the strategic determination that TSA would not expand the Screening Partnership Program (SSP) beyond the 16 airports that were already participating, unless there was a clear and substantial advantage to the federal government,” Farbstein said. “Following this decision, the agency developed a new SPP application that provides an opportunity for interested airport managers and directors to make a case for using contract screening services.”

Two schools of thought

When it comes to the Screening Partnership Program, author Jeff Price said airports adopt one of two schools of thought.

The first: Baggage screening is strictly a TSA responsibility — “It’s their headache,” he said.

“They kind of throw up their hands and can point their finger at TSA if there are long lines,” Price added.

The other approach, he explained, is typically taken up by airports more concerned with the “passenger experience” — making sure flyers pass through security checkpoints as efficiently as possible. That type of airport, Price said, tends to turn to the private sector for screening assistance.

He noted none of the 16 airports that have opted for contracted screeners has asked for the TSA to return.

“So there’s got to be something these airports are seeing in the private workforce,” Price said.

It remains unclear which type of screener is more successful at detecting illegal items since those statistics are mostly classified information and unavailable..

On Tuesday, lawmakers urged their colleagues to look beyond mere cost and at the private screening program’s overall impact on national security.

“I hope the administration will courageously hold the line,” Jackson Lee said. “This is not the time for politicizing and making people happy. It is not the time for humoring small businesses.”