Congress sent President Bush legislation Friday to intensify anti-terror efforts in the U.S., shifting money to high-risk states and cities and expanding screening of air and sea cargo to stave off future Sept. 11-style attacks.
The measure carries out major recommendations of the independent 9/11 Commission.
The bill, passed by the House on a 371-40 vote, ranks among the top accomplishments of the six-month-old Democratic Congress. The Senate approved the measure late Thursday by 85-8, and the White House said the president would sign the bill.
Six years after the Sept. 11 attacks and three years after the 9/11 Commission made its recommendations, “Congress is finally embracing what the 9/11 families have been saying all along,” said Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. “It takes a willingness to do things a different way.”
The bill elevates the importance of risk factors in determining which states and cities get federal security funds — that would mean more money for such cities as New York and Washington — and also puts money into a new program to assure that security officials at every level can communicate with each other.
It would require screening of all cargo on passenger planes within three years and sets a five-year goal of scanning all container ships for nuclear devices before they leave foreign ports.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who steered the legislation through the Senate with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said it would “make our nation stronger, our cities and towns more secure and our families safer.”
Republicans generally backed the bill while stressing their own administration’s success in stopping another major terrorist attack. The bill, said Rep. Peter King of New York, top Republican on the Homeland Security panel, “is another step in the right direction building on the steps of the previous 5½ years.”
“These efforts build upon the considerable progress we’ve made over the past six years,” said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.
Completion of the bill, six months after the House passed its original version on the first day of the current Congress, was a major victory for Democrats who have seen some of their other priorities — immigration and energy reform and stem cell research funding — thwarted by GOP and presidential resistance and House-Senate differences.
Another goal, raising the minimum wage, went into effect last Tuesday, and Democratic leaders still hope for agreement on ethics and lobbying changes before Congress departs for its August recess at the end of next week.
The independent 9/11 Commission in 2004 issued 41 recommendations covering domestic security, intelligence gathering and foreign policy. Congress and the White House followed through on some, including creating a director of national intelligence, tightening land border screening and cracking down on terrorist financing.
Democrats, after taking over control of Congress, promised to make completing the list a top priority.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., the vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, said with enactment of the bill some 80 percent of the panel’s recommendations will have been met. “The bottom line is that the American people will be safer,” he said.
The 9/11 bill led off the first busy legislative week in the House last January, and the Senate passed its version in March. The measure stalled after that, partly because of a White House veto threat over language, since dropped, to give collective bargaining rights to aviation screeners.
House-Senate negotiators finally reached an agreement this week after Democrats worked out a provision satisfying GOP demands that people who report what they in good faith believe to be terrorist activity around planes, trains and buses be protected from lawsuits.
The most controversial provision in the legislation requires the radiation scanning of cargo containers in more than 600 ports from which ships leave for the U.S. The White House, and other critics, say that the technology isn’t there, that the requirement could disrupt trade and that current procedures including manifest inspections at foreign ports and radiation monitoring in U.S. ports are working well.
Supporters argue that the unthinkable devastation from the detonation of a nuclear device in an American port makes it imperative to scan cargo before it reaches U.S. shores. As a compromise, it was agreed that the Homeland Security secretary can extend the five-year deadline for 100 percent scanning in two-year increments if necessary.
The White House was also unhappy with a provision that requires total amounts requested and appropriated for the intelligence community to be made public.
Congress recommendations not part of bill
There was more agreement on changing the formula to ensure that more federal security grants go to high-risk states and cities. The current formula makes sure that every lawmaker, even those representing rural areas relatively safe from terrorism, get a chunk of the federal grants. Under the new formula a larger percentage of grants will go to high-risk urban areas.
The bill also establishes a new grant program to ensure that local, state and federal officials can communicate with each other and approves $4 billion over four years for rail, transit and bus security.
It strengthens security measures for the Visa Waiver Program, which allows travelers from select countries to visit the United States without visas.
The massive legislation also contains language requiring the president to confirm that Pakistan is making progress in combating al-Qaida and Taliban elements within its borders before the United States provides aid to the country.
Hamilton said that one shortcoming of the bill is that it fails to carry out the commission’s recommendation that Congress streamline its own overlapping setup for monitoring intelligence and homeland security matters. “I think congressional oversight still remains a weakness in our homeland security,” he said.