By Dan Eggen and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 9, 2007
House Democrats announced legislation yesterday aimed at implementing many of the remaining reforms suggested by the Sept. 11 commission, including calls for more thorough cargo screening, better emergency communications and more money for cities at the highest risk of terrorist attack.
Democratic leaders plan to push through votes this week on a long list of Sept. 11-related changes that were rejected by the previous Republican-controlled Congress. The proposals signal an early willingness on the part of House Democrats to pressure their colleagues in the Senate, where lawmakers from both parties are cooler to some of the ideas and where no similar package of legislation has been proposed.
Democrats say that the House proposals would implement nearly all the remaining reforms recommended in 2004 by the bipartisan commission on the 2001 attacks, including ways to beef up funding and training for first responders as well as calls to rewrite many U.S. policies for controlling weapons of mass destruction and nuclear proliferation.
Former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who served as vice chairman of the panel, estimated that the previous Congress had enacted half the commission's recommendations, including creating a director to oversee the federal government's intelligence agencies. He said the "American people will be safer" if the remaining proposals become law.
"It carries out the recommendations that we have made," Hamilton said at a news conference yesterday with House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democrats. "And if this bill is enacted, then almost all of the recommendations of the commission will have been put into law."
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the changes would, among other things, result in "100 percent" screening of air cargo and baggage and major ports' cargo within four years.
The legislation calls for the establishment of a presidential office to coordinate prevention of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Supporters of the measure described it as necessary to direct activities and budgets on an issue that is now spread among numerous departments and agencies. The bill also would create an outside commission to monitor government nonproliferation initiatives.
The Sept. 11 commission gave the administration a grade of D in following up on its general recommendations for preventing the development and spread of weapons of mass destruction. The Democratic legislation proposes a wide range of initiatives to expand the scope of international cooperation and sanctions for countries that do not cooperate.
Noting that the commission called for a significant expansion of resources for international broadcasting and promotion of democracy, the bill calls for a "surge capacity" of additional funding "to support United States foreign policy objectives during a crisis abroad."
Congress's ability to push for change in these areas is limited.
"When you start on the domestic side, Congress has a lot more room to act," said Andrew Grotto, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "On public diplomacy and the proliferation elements, Congress's role starts to shift from direct action to more oversight and to funding."
Republicans on the Homeland Security committee offered immediate criticism of the package, arguing that Democrats had not followed through on promises to enact all of the remaining commission recommendations. They complained that Democrats were limiting debate and that many Democrats previously opposed the changes that they are now advocating.
Ranking Republican Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), whom Thompson replaced, called it a "missed opportunity."
The Sept. 11 commission report focused heavily on reorganizing the U.S. intelligence community and congressional oversight, the global dimension of terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Domestic recommendations focused on border security, transportation security and protection of critical infrastructure.
The GOP-controlled Congress acted on many of those findings, including targeting terrorist travel, consolidating watch lists and securing commercial aviation. But many of the other changes stalled, such as attempts to set up a biometric border entry and exit system, establish secure ID documents for all Americans and develop plans to protect key private-sector targets.
While the House considers its legislation, the Senate's homeland security panel plans to hold a hearing today on the status of commission recommendations and expects to vote on a bill by the end of the month, said a spokeswoman for the committee's chairman, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.).
But the Senate has opposed some of the key proposals in the House bill, such as reducing grant funds awarded to all states in favor of those most at risk, and it is unclear how much the new Democratic majority will alter that stance.
Michael O'Hanlon, a security analyst at the Brookings Institution, said House Democrats' embrace of their interpretation of the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations was designed to make a political point of swift action, not necessarily to make the best policy.
"I don't understand why we have to assume that everything that came out of the 9/11 commission is accurate and it should be axiomatic that the House should approve everything they proposed," O'Hanlon said.
Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who heads the Center for Health and Homeland Security there, praised House Democrats for taking on the proposals but said they will have a tough time convincing many of their colleagues in the Senate.
"It's a very aggressive proposal, more aggressive than I would have thought," Greenberger said. "I wouldn't be optimistic that it will all make it through the Senate, but I'm surprised it got this far."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.