The Senate yesterday gave final approval to legislation creating an independent commission to investigate the September 2001 terrorist attacks and cleared the way for passage of two other major anti-terrorism initiatives before the 107th Congress adjourns next week.
Senators plan to vote early next week, probably Tuesday, on the two other proposals, which would create a 170,000-employee Department of Homeland Security and a new program to help insurers cover claims from any future terrorist attacks.
The House approved the commission proposal shortly before it wrapped up work and headed home early yesterday. The Senate approved the bill by voice vote. It was included in the intelligence authorization bill for this year.
The White House has signaled that President Bush will sign the bill. He originally opposed an independent probe into why the United States was unable to prevent the terrorist attacks last year on New York and the Pentagon, but later endorsed it.
The 10-member commission of private citizens would be evenly divided between Republican and Democratic appointees, to be named by Dec. 15 for an 18-month probe. Bush would choose the chairman, with congressional leaders naming the other members.
The panel would look into aviation, immigration and other issues as well as intelligence and law enforcement matters that were the focus of an earlier investigation by House and Senate intelligence committees. Subpoenas could be issued by agreement of the chairman and vice chairman or by a vote of six commissioners. To ensure that Democrats would not be blocked from issuing subpoenas by solid opposition from Republicans, it was agreed that one of the Senate Republican appointees would have to have the approval of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), party mavericks who were strong advocates of the investigation.
With the Senate voting 65-29 against further delaying tactics, the homeland security bill cleared a procedural hurdle, and Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said he believed the Senate would pass the bill next week. But Daschle and other Democrats said they will try to strip out several proposals they regard as sops to special interests, a characterization rejected by the provisions' supporters. Among the proposals are liability protections for pharmaceutical companies and a weakening of provisions aimed at preventing the new department from contracting with companies that locate offshore to escape U.S. taxes.
Daschle said he expects all Democrats to vote to remove the provisions and believes passage depends on winning a few GOP votes. The proposals, he told reporters, "ought to be embarrassing to every member of the Senate, regardless of party.''
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) denied that they were favors to special interests, saying the charge "makes good political rhetoric, but it's not true."
If the bill is changed in any way, it goes back to the House, which could reconvene to consider last-minute business. John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said the House would insist on a conference committee to deal with any Senate changes. A serious struggle between the two houses could delay adjournment.
The terrorism insurance bill, approved Thursday night by voice vote in the House, was promptly put on track for final passage after the Senate approves the homeland security bill. Gramm and some other Republicans complained that a compromise on the legislation does not include limits on punitive damages in lawsuits arising from terrorist attacks. But most senators appear to favor the legislation, and Daschle has said he expects the bill to be approved.
House Republicans, angry at exclusion of the damage limits, delayed action on the measure for some time. But proponents contended it was necessary for construction projects that could help the economy, and Bush made it a priority for the lame-duck session, along with the homeland security department.