Saturday, July 28, 2007
Congress gave final approval yesterday to legislation that requires tighter screening of air and sea cargo, and shifts more federal anti-terrorism grants to high-risk areas such as New York and Washington, delivering on a pledge by Democrats last fall to implement additional recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Voting 371 to 40, the House followed the Senate, which voted 85 to 8 Thursday night, to send the measure to the White House after dropping a controversial provision that would have extended union protection to 45,000 federal airport screeners. That language had prompted a veto threat from President Bush.
In a statement, the White House criticized Congress for not acting on the Sept. 11 commission's recommendation to streamline its own tangled oversight of domestic security. But it said Bush's major concerns "have been addressed, and the president will sign the legislation."
Democrats said the passage of the third of six legislative priorities established after their 2006 takeover of Congress proved that they are delivering on their campaign pledges.
"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 speech on the House floor.
All Senate and House members from the Washington area voted for the bill, except Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), who did not vote.
The bill implements many of the remaining recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. It cuts in half the amount of homeland security grants provided to states with no regard to the risk of attack they face. Those guaranteed, population-based allocations are to be cut from about 40 percent of the total to about 20 percent.
It requires radiation screening -- within five years -- of 100 percent of U.S.-bound maritime cargo before loading at foreign ports, but it allows the secretary of homeland security to extend the deadline two years at a time. Similarly, 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 bill authorizes -- but does not fund -- significant increases in homeland security grants, providing billions of dollars for transit and aviation security, emergency communications and first responders.
In two controversial steps, Congress declassified the total amount budgeted annually for U.S. intelligence, but in a compromise with the administration, which opposed the change, it agreed to allow the president to waive the disclosure after two years if national security is harmed.
The bill also sets up a program requiring air travelers from 27 friendly countries to register online with the U.S. government as much as 48 hours before departure. Passenger manifests are now sent 15 minutes after takeoff. The change will give U.S. authorities more time to vet passport data for high-risk travelers. Most of the nations are in Europe. Their residents can visit the United States without visas for as much as 90 days.
Republicans accused Democrats of making "a hollow campaign promise" by not using the bill to consolidate Congress's oversight of homeland security within a single committee, a charge that Democrats levied at GOP leaders in three previous congresses. They also claimed victory by preserving a provision that protects from lawsuits people who report, in good faith, suspected terrorist activity involving aircraft, trains and buses.
Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the bill, "while not perfect, is another step in the right direction, building on the steps of the previous five years."
Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the measure is "a nudge in generally the right direction.
"It's reasonable. It has the virtue of identifying a short list of priorities . . . [and] of pushing hard without firmly mandating something that may not be necessary or practical," O'Hanlon said. "It keeps homeland security in the conversation, when it would be all too easy to let it slide over issues like Iraq, immigration and domestic politics."
In related action, the Senate also passed late Thursday its $40.6 billion version of the 2008 Department of Homeland Security budget, voting 89 to 4, after adding $3 billion for border security. The money is meant to pay for fencing, sensors and vehicle barriers; 3,000 more Border Patrol agents; 4,000 new detention beds; and 700 additional immigration enforcement personnel.