By William Branigin and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 27, 2007 5:42 PM
The House gave final approval today to a Democratic bill that implements recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, mandating tighter screening of air and sea cargo and shifting more federal security money to high-risk areas such as New York and Washington, D.C.
The package, already approved by the Senate, passed the House by a vote of 371-40 and now goes to President Bush for his signature. It contains provisions that the White House has opposed, but Democrats agreed to modify some measures to win Republican approval and dropped one element that had triggered a presidential veto threat.
In a statement, the White House expressed reservations about the bill but said that its major concerns "have been addressed, and the president will sign the legislation."
The deal would authorize--but not fund--significant increases in homeland security grants, providing $4 billion over four years for transit security, $750 million a year for airport checkpoint and baggage screening technology and research and $1.8 billion next year for states and high-risk cities.
The bill implements a key recommendation of the Sept. 11 Commission by cutting in half the amount of homeland security grants provided to states regardless of the risk they face. Those guaranteed allocations are to be cut from about 40 percent of the total grants to about 20 percent.
It would require radiation screening within five years of 100 percent of U.S.-bound maritime cargo before it is loaded at foreign ports, but allows the secretary of homeland security to extend the deadline two years at a time. Likewise, it requires screening of all cargo carried on passenger aircraft within three years, but not physical inspection, as initially proposed. That change will limit the impact on carriers.
The legislation also would authorize about $1.6 billion in federal grants to ensure the interoperability of emergency radios for first responders at the federal, state and local levels.
Another provision would withhold U.S. assistance to Pakistan for fiscal 2008 until the president certifies that Pakistan is cracking down on the Taliban to end what Democrats call an "unacceptable" staging area for Muslim militants.
"With this bill we'll be keeping our promises to the families of 9/11, we'll be honoring the work of the 9/11 Commission, and we'll be making the American people safer," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a floor speech before the vote.
"This legislation alone cannot immunize our nation from attacks," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "However, it does represent a very important step forward for our national security." Specifically, said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), the bill "places priority on providing homeland security grants based on risk and not political preference."
Holding up a photo of the burning World Trade Center in New York, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.) said in a floor speech, "We lost lives on 9/11 because we were not prepared in terms of the intelligence community, in terms of the supporting law enforcement community. Today we are prepared."
But Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) argued that the bill represents "a hollow campaign promise" that fails to address a key recommendation of the Sept. 11 Commission: streamlining congressional oversight of homeland security to reduce redundant involvement by a number of different committees. Democrats, he charged, "once again are ignoring this important issue entirely."
Rep. Peter King (R.N.Y.), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, also complained that the bill stopped short of consolidating oversight jurisdiction in one committee. But he said he supported the bill "because on balance I believe there have been significant improvements made," notably the overhaul of security grant allocations. The bill, "while not perfect, is another step in the right direction, building on the steps of the previous five years," King said.
Today's vote on a House-Senate conference report came after the Senate last night approved the package 85-8 despite White House opposition to several provisions. In particular, the Bush administration had objected to a requirement that all U.S.-bound ship containers be scanned for nuclear devices before leaving foreign ports, questioning its feasibility. Democrats agreed to soften the requirement by allowing for extensions of the five-year deadline.
In addition, Democratic negotiators dropped a provision that would allow federal airport screeners to unionize, which had triggered a White House veto threat.
Republicans claimed victory when they prevailed on Democrats to maintain a GOP-sponsored provision that provides protection from lawsuits to people who make good-faith reports of suspected terrorist activity involving airplanes, trains and buses.
The so-called "flying imams provision" grew out of an incident in November in which six Muslim scholars were removed from a U.S. Airways flight in Minneapolis after other passengers reported that they were acting suspiciously. The scholars subsequently filed suit, alleging that their civil rights had been violated. The House in March voted 304-121 to include the provision in the bill.
Separately, the legislation would allow the United States to set up a program that requires travelers from European and other friendly countries to register online with the U.S. government up to 48 hours before departure. The move would give American authorities more time to vet passport data for high-risk travelers than at present; passenger manifests now are sent 15 minutes after takeoff.
The measure would apply to 27 countries, mostly in western Europe, whose residents can travel to the United States for as long as 90 days without visas. Over objections from business groups and current member nations, Washington is pushing to add security requirements as it weighs requests by 12 countries, many in Central and Eastern Europe, to join the Visa Waiver Program.
The Senate also passed late Thursday its $40.6 billion version of the Homeland Security Department's 2008 budget, voting 89-4, after adding $3 billion for border security. The money is to pay for fencing, sensors and vehicle barriers; 3,000 Border Patrol agents; 4,000 new detention beds, and 700 immigration enforcement personnel.
The White House had threatened to veto the bill over $2.2 billion in "unnecessary spending," including $1.8 billion in added state and local security grants. But a spokesman said yesterday that the White House wants to work with House and Senate negotiators to ensure that border security money is spent on top priorities.