Spurred by the families of Sept. 11 victims, Senate leaders tentatively agreed Tuesday to take up a measure that would tighten the nation's security and delay a contentious debate on Iraq until next month.
"We have got to finish this bill," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said as he opened the Senate session. He read parts of a letter from relatives of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks asking the Senate to consider the legislation "without complications regarding Iraq."
Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he and Reid were discussing the terms of a separate debate on Iraq that would follow completion of the 9/11 bill, expected by the end of next week.
The arrangement would allow the Senate to debate legislation bolstering anti-terrorism security measures on railroads and airlines without being distracted by the furor over President Bush's buildup of troops in Iraq.
"We expect a freewheeling Senate-style debate on the 9/11 bill," McConnell said.
Controversy without Iraq
Even minus an Iraq debate, provisions in the anti-terrorism bill or planned amendments make the legislation contentious. The administration vigorously opposes a measure that would allow federal screeners at airports to join a union, as well as an amendment that would allow states to delay adopting standardized drivers' licenses.
Other measures would improve rail and aviation security, provide funds for state and local emergency communications systems, improve intelligence sharing between federal, state and local officials, and expand a visa waiver benefit for favored countries.
The bill would require that airport screeners receive the same collective bargaining and whistle-blower rights held by most federal employees. However, it received only Democratic support when it was approved by the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
The panel's chairman, independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, said screeners have been denied the most basic employee protections since joining the federal payroll after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Bush administration strongly opposed the provision, and committee Republicans argued that the Homeland Security Department needs flexibility in setting screeners' schedules and procedures.
Drivers' license and rail concerns
The administration may also oppose expected amendments to the REAL-ID Act, passed in 2005, that set a national standard for drivers' licenses and required states to link their record-keeping systems. Many states have complained about the cost of the program, and civil libertarians are concerned about privacy issues.
A Senate rail security proposal projects spending of just over $1 billion for the next four years to cover upgrading security of both Amtrak and freight rail systems; upgrading Amtrak tunnels in the northeast; creating a rail security research program; and conducting a rail security risk assessment. It would also cover programs to improve security for trucks and buses, pipelines and hazardous material transport.
Aviation security language requires the Transportation Security Administration to implement a system within three years to screen all cargo being carried on commercial passenger aircraft. It is not clear how much this provision could cost, but estimates have ranged from $4 billion over 10 years to $3 billion over the next five years.
The Bush administration has maintained that the provision is unnecessarily restrictive, with TSA chief Kip Hawley arguing that he needs a freer hand and more flexibility in setting security standards.
The aviation security measure also calls for TSA to develop a pilot program using blast-resistant cargo containers and to assess the feasibility of security screening for small private planes.
Senate leaders were hoping to dissuade lawmakers from introducing amendments on the Iraq war, which would almost certainly slow work on the bill to a crawl.