A national security bill that would strengthen screening of air and sea cargo could be on the president’s desk within the next week.
The legislation, which aims to carry out remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, also would shift more federal funds to cities and states at greatest risk of terror attack and designate money to ensure that first responders can communicate with each other.
“The bill will protect Americans from terrorism by addressing major security vulnerabilities and improving our defenses across the board against terrorist attacks,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the plan is to send the compromise bill, worked out by House-Senate negotiators, to President Bush before Congress leaves for its August recess at the end of next week. “I hope the president would not see the 9/11 Commission recommendations bill as a confrontation,” he said.
House Democrats, stressing the legislation’s importance, passed it on the first day of the session last January, and the Senate passed its version in March. But further action stalled until Democrats agreed to drop a provision in both bills that would have given airport screeners collective bargaining rights.
The last holdup, resolved Tuesday, was a Republican demand that citizens who report activity that appears to be a terrorist threat be given immunity from lawsuits. The issue grew out of an incident last fall when six Muslim scholars were removed from a Minneapolis flight after other passengers said they were acting strangely. The scholars have filed suit, saying their civil rights were violated.
Bush disagrees on provisions
The White House has protested some provisions in the bill, particularly a requirement that within the next five years all container ships be scanned for nuclear devices before they leave a foreign port. The administration says such a scanning system is “neither executable nor feasible,” but has stopped short of threatening a veto.
That’s not the case for a homeland security spending bill currently on the Senate floor, which President Bush says he will veto because it exceeds his spending ceilings.
The bill provides $37.6 billion for the budget year beginning Oct. 1, $2.3 billion more than requested by Bush. Most of the additional money would go to grants to state and local governments for emergency responders, including firefighters.
The independent 9/11 Commission in 2004 made 41 sweeping recommendations to prevent another terrorist attack, covering tighter domestic security, reform of intelligence gathering and new foreign policy directions.
Some have been carried out, either by Congress or the White House: the creation of the new position of director of national intelligence, tightened screening procedures on land borders, the moving toward standardized and secure IDs, and countermeasures against terrorist financing.
Thomas Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission and former GOP governor of New Jersey, said in an interview that the new bill “doesn’t mean everything is done, but it is a very big step forward. It will make our nation safer.”
The commission did not specifically ask for 100 percent screening at foreign ports. Critics say installing scanning equipment in more than 600 foreign ports is unworkable and that the current system of targeting high-risk cargo for inspection, checking the manifests of container ships in foreign ports and installing radiation detectors in U.S. ports, is more practical.
But supporters, mainly Democrats, insisted the technology exists and that, considering the unthinkable devastation of a nuclear attack, a nuclear device must be detected before it reaches an American port. The provision gives the Homeland Security secretary authority to extend the five-year deadline in two-year increments if the system is not ready.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said she would refuse to sign the House-Senate compromise to protest the port scanning provision, although she would vote for the bill when it reaches the Senate floor. She said the provision would divert resources needed for high-risk cargo and cause considerable backlog at ports.
But she said she was pleased with the lawsuit immunity provision. “I’ve long believed that an alert citizenry is one of our best defenses,” she said. “I don’t want an individual who in good faith reports suspicious activity to be subject to a lawsuit.”
The bill also requires the screening of all passenger plane cargo within three years and changes the formula for distributing federal grants so that high-risk states and cities receive more.
Kean said that one recommendation the bill does not address is the need for Congress to consolidate its own homeland security functions by reducing the number of committees with a hand in security issues. “Congress hasn’t done anything about itself,” he said.