By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
The Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday to implement many of the remaining reforms suggested by the Sept. 11 commission, answering its three-year-old call for better emergency communications; more money for cities at high risk of terrorist attacks; and tighter security for air cargo, ports, chemical plants and rail systems.
In a sign of how far the politics of homeland security have shifted since the Democrats seized Congress, senators voted 60 to 38 -- with 10 Republicans and no Democrats crossing ranks -- to force a fresh national security confrontation with President Bush, who has threatened to veto the bill over a provision to expand the labor rights of 45,000 airport screeners.
In January, more than a third of GOP members supported a House version, which Democrats included in their "100 hours" agenda after campaigning successfully on the issue last fall. Differences in the bills, each of which would cost about $20 billion over five years, will be hammered out in conference.
"This bill will make the people of America, in an age of terrorism, safer yet than they have been before," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) criticized the legislation, saying it would weaken U.S. security overall by "pumping for big labor." By allowing the workers to unionize, Democrats "would make the Department of Homeland Security more like the Department of Motor Vehicles," he said.
The administration focused on the labor provision, noting that it was not recommended by the Sept. 11 panel. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that it would endanger American travelers by eliminating the Transportation Security Administration's authority to deploy workers to meet changing threats. The White House has lined up enough Republicans to uphold a Bush veto.
Democrats have been bolder on homeland security issues since the midterm elections. A recent Washington Post poll showed that Americans trust congressional Democrats to do a better job than Bush in handling terrorism.
This week, Lieberman criticized a White House proposal to cut grants to state and local first responders by 40 percent compared with 2004 levels. Instead, he urged boosting the Department of Homeland Security's $46.4 billion fiscal 2008 budget by $3.4 billion.
"More, not less, must be done to make sure we are fighting the war against terror on the home front with the same financial commitment that we are fighting the war on terror overseas," he said.
Differences remain between the Senate bill passed yesterday and the House version. Both would strengthen a DHS privacy board.
The House bill would require the TSA to inspect all cargo aboard passenger aircraft as thoroughly as baggage in three years, and to spend more on explosive screening in aviation. It would also set aside more grant money for areas at highest risk of attack, as recommended by the Sept. 11 commission, the survivors of attack victims and security experts.
The Senate bill would issue more grants overall, $3.1 billion a year for five years for states, plus $3.3 billion for emergency communications and $4.1 billion for rail and transit systems.
Unlike the House measure, the Senate bill would not require radiation scanning for all U.S.-bound cargo containers at foreign ports. It would declassify the total dollar amount the nation spends on intelligence, against the wishes of the White House, but would support the administration's push to tighten the requirements and expand a security program under which nationals from friendly countries may travel to the United States without a visa.
Carie Lemack, president of Families of September 11, called the Senate vote "a good first step," but she said survivors would continue to push for tighter screening of air cargo and measures to prevent nuclear terrorism.