By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
In a lopsided vote that masked underlying divisions, House Democrats approved legislation yesterday to implement many of the remaining recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission even as portions of the sprawling package faced immediate problems in the Senate.
Voting 299 to 128, congressional Democrats, backed by scores of Republicans, delivered on a key part of their "100 hours" agenda. The nearly 300-page anti-terrorism measure sets new mandates to scrutinize air- and ship-borne cargo, send more federal aid to areas at the greatest risk of terrorism, improve emergency communications, fight nuclear proliferation overseas, and strengthen a civil liberties watchdog board.
But critics questioned the cost and feasibility of new cargo requirements -- raising issues that helped stall action by the previous, Republican-controlled Congress -- and industry and the Department of Homeland Security added their opposition. The greatest skepticism focused on requirements in the House bill that airlines be able to physically inspect 100 percent of cargo put aboard passenger planes within three years and that shippers scan 100 percent of U.S.-bound cargo for radiation at overseas ports within five years.
The bill's biggest detractor, or patron, could be Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who chairs the Senate's Homeland Security panel and who held his own hearing yesterday. He stopped short of promising -- as House leaders had -- to implement all remaining recommendations of the commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Lieberman said that he hopes by month's end, as requested by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), to draft and pass a Senate bill "that will take steps forward to adopt some of the unadopted, unimplemented or inadequately implemented parts" of proposals recommended in 2004 by the bipartisan commission.
Just four months ago the Senate rejected mandatory scanning overseas for nuclear and shielding material of 11 million shipping containers sent to U.S. ports every year.
Fifty-six of the chamber's members, including seven Democrats, voted to kill a requirement to scan all such containers by 2010 as part of broader port-security legislation, concluding that existing technology could not do the job without crippling the flow of commerce.
That claim was repeated this week by major industry lobbies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which warned that unilateral action by the administration could lead to retaliation by trading partners and disruption, with little added security.
Instead, the Homeland Security and Energy departments last month announced a congressionally required pilot program to spend $60 million to scan 7 percent of U.S.-bound cargo originating from six ports by year's end. The program would start with ports in Pakistan, South Korea and Britain, with a goal of eventually expanding to 30 percent of U.S.-bound cargo. Scanning 100 percent of cargo would involve about 700 ports worldwide.
Other provisions of the House bill also carry a big price tag, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she expects airlines and shippers to help fund. For example, inspecting all cargo placed aboard passenger aircraft by 2009 could cost $3.6 billion to $6 billion for equipment, installation and screening personnel, the Congressional Research Service and the Transportation Security Administration estimate, House Republican officials said.
The Bush administration also formally opposed several elements of the House bill, saying in a statement that it could not support the measure as drafted, but stopping short of a veto threat.
David Schanzer, who was Democratic staff director and chief counsel of the House Homeland Security Committee from 2003 to 2005, criticized major portions of the House bill as "aspirational" rather than substantive. He warned that the new Democratic majority will find it difficult to find billions for promised tax changes, homeland security measures and the ongoing war in Iraq.
"Democrats have put a lot of spending priorities on the table," Schanzer said. "Where this is going to fit in them will tell a lot.
Seth M.M. Stodder, former director of policy and planning for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the Senate will be a key battleground between the administration and more aggressive House Democrats. Stodder said he thinks Lieberman, Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Alaska) and ranking Republicans will play decisive roles.
Separately yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced $445 million in new grants to secure ports, transit systems, vital facilities such as chemical and power plants, and bus and trucking lines. The total is $46 million more than last year. The Washington-Baltimore area will receive $18.3 million in transit aid.
Also yesterday, the House voted 239 to 188 to create an Appropriations subcommittee to increase oversight of intelligence spending.