House Passes $7.4 Billion Port Security Bill

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2006

The House overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday to provide $7.4 billion in spending on new port security inspectors, nuclear weapons screening and the development of an automated system to pinpoint high-risk cargo.

The 421 to 2 vote came just hours after the White House expressed strong misgivings over the cost and feasibility of the bill. But the lopsided vote underscored how politically sensitive the issue of port security has become since the state-owned Dubai Ports World moved to purchase terminal operations at six major U.S. seaports in February.

Republicans had voted several times in the past two years against Democratic proposals to increase funding for port security, saying that enough was already being spent. Indeed, White House officials repeated that assertion yesterday in a policy statement that depicted the House bill as overly generous and technologically unrealistic.

But the furor over the Dubai deal brought the two parties together on bipartisan port security legislation. Only two House members opposed the measure yesterday, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who said the price tag is too high, and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who contended that the bill does not go far enough to ensure the safety of vulnerable seaports.

"House Republicans will continue to do what is right to protect American families and prevent a tragedy like September 11th from occurring ever again," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "We understand that we must secure our ports in order to protect our citizens."

But House Republicans blocked consideration of a Democratic amendment that would have required that all cargo be screened before it leaves foreign ports for the United States. The Senate Homeland Security Committee, in drafting its companion bill earlier this week, added a pilot program at three foreign ports to test the feasibility of 100 percent screening.

House GOP leaders called Democratic push unreasonable.

"One hundred percent screening of every container will shut down worldwide shipping overnight," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). He added that a House-passed feasibility study is a "practical, common-sense approach to the issue."

Democrats countered that they will continue to push more robust legislation.

"All it takes is one atomic or radiological bomb to make 9/11 look like a firecracker," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). "If we really want to make this country safer, we must demand that before any container is put on a ship bound for the United States, it must be scanned electronically in the foreign port. It's too late if we find a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles or New York."

Providing an additional $7.4 billion over the next five years, the House bill would bolster the Department of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, requiring the deployment of nuclear and radiological detection systems in all domestic seaports.

It would set up new tracking systems for discovering and monitoring high-risk cargo and would accelerate the creation of a transportation-worker identification card. New port-security training and exercises would also be required.

The White House's Office of Management and Budget expressed concern over what it called the measure's "serious resource implications," charging in a statement of policy that it would tie the hands of the Department of Homeland Security in bureaucratic red tape.

The required deployment of advanced radiation detectors by September 2007 "might not be feasible given the current state of detector acquisition, installation, and development," the White House said in a statement. It added that $400 million a year in dedicated port security grants would be unnecessary and wasteful.

Nonetheless, White House officials stopped short of issuing a veto threat on legislation that appears destined for speedy enactment.

Four and a half years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, port security has become an unlikely political issue. The same coalition of liberal interest groups and labor unions that helped kill President Bush's Social Security proposals has launched a national campaign to portray Republicans as opposing port security, through home-district appearances and radio advertisements.

The Department of Homeland Security currently opens for inspection 6 percent of the 11 million cargo containers that enter U.S. seaports annually. But all cargo manifests are examined, as is "high-risk cargo," which is identified through an automated targeting system. Republican leaders said going much further than the House bill would slow the flow of international trade and would cost U.S. jobs.

The issue came to the fore with the Dubai port deal. Bowing to intense pressure, Dubai Ports World announced in March that it would sell to an American firm its U.S. operations at ports in Baltimore, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Miami and New Orleans.

But two months later, no deal has been struck.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company