Congress Nears Passage of Anti-Terrorism Bill
By ERIC LIPTON | July 25, 2007
WASHINGTON, July 25 — Congress is moving toward approval of anti-terrorism legislation that requires a greater share of homeland security grants to be based on risk, instead of a political formula, and seeks to tighten security for cargo carried on ships and passenger planes.
But it is uncertain how effective some of the promised security enhancements will be because Democrats, to ensure passage of the measure, agreed to compromises that diluted some provisions.
The compromises were necessary because of a veto threat from President Bush and opposition by Republican members of Congress. The bill, expected to come up for final votes next week, had cleared the House in January and the Senate in March but had been stalled until recently. Republicans claimed that some of the initiatives being pushed by Democrats, such as a requirement that all ship containers headed to the United States from overseas be checked for nuclear threats, were impractical and would disrupt global trade.
Democrats, struggling to win final passage for at least a few pieces of legislation before the summer recess, agreed to the changes, which will allow them to claim a victory.
“To get a bill passed is an art of compromise,” Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in an interview Wednesday. “But I don’t think we weakened our systems of protection in the process.”
The bill, which still must be approved once again by the full House and Senate, makes a major change in the way state homeland security grants are distributed. It cut the guaranteed minimum grant each state would get to about $1.9 million this year from $3.8 million, .That allows Homeland Security officials to distribute more discretionary grants to states where the threat and consequences of a terror strike are deemed greatest.
The change in the formula moves in the direction advocated by the Sept. 11 Commission, whose recommendations were the inspiration for this bill. Still, the minimum amount set aside for small population states like Wyoming, West Virginia and Montana, is 50 percent higher than the House first proposed when the bill was introduced in January. In past years, officials from some big states, including New York, that were considered likely terrorist targets complained that small or rural states collected outsized grants.
Democrats also agreed to drop a provision that would have required that airport security screeners be given collective bargaining rights like most other federal workers, giving them more power to object to work hours or assignments, a measure that brought a veto threat from President Bush.
And they agreed to a Republican request that broad legal coverage be offered to people who report suspicious activity. The measure was inspired by an incident last year in Minneapolis, where six Muslim men were removed from a flight after a passenger complained, which provoked a lawsuit against the passenger.
Some of the most significant compromises necessary to win passage came involved cargo screening.
For more than two years, Democrats have sought to require that all cargo carried by passenger airplanes be inspected for explosives and that ship cargo containers bound for the United States from foreign ports be scanned for nuclear or radiological weapons.
The air cargo requirement, in the final version of the bill, still requires that within three years that all cargo carried by passenger jets be checked, but the legislation now specifically says it must be “screened” instead of “inspected.”
That language could mean that perhaps as much as 60 percent of the air cargo could be exempt from a mandatory physical inspection at the airport, under a new program to be known as a “Certified Shipper,” Homeland Security officials who participated in the negotiations said.
Companies that participate in this program will be still be required to follow security rules, including conducting their own inspection of the packages and putting special tamperproof seals on containers. But packages handled by these companies, which is likely to represent the bulk of the air cargo industry, would generally be exempt from a mandated electronic, canine or other kind of physical inspection at the airport.
Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, a leading advocate for the air cargo inspections, said he was pleased with the outcome and did not consider it to be weakened from his original goal.
“It is a significant increase in the level of security,” he said.
After negotiators for both parties reached agreement Wednesday, the House Republican leaders claimed credit. “Republicans One-Up House Democrats, Claim Victory on Key 9/11 Protection Against Terrorist Activity,” they said in a news release, a nearly certain sign that after months of negotiating, the bill is likely to pass with bipartisan support when it comes up for a final votes by the end of next week.