Friday, November 16, 2001

Shocked into unaccustomed unity, Congress and the White House have moved quickly and cooperatively to fight terrorism on some fronts. They ought to resolve to do so on all.

If Congress could swiftly give President Bush authority to wage war on al Qaeda and the Taliban and permission to tap the phones of possible terrorists, why can’t lawmakers and the administration come to terms on airport security?

If the two sides can agree on bioterrorism upgrades and border security both of which are likely to happen soon why can’t they reach a consensus on energy security, a stimulus package and a responsible budget?

Airline security legislation has been unconscionably delayed by differences over whether baggage inspectors should be federal employees, as Democrats insist.

Personally, I think Mr. Bush and House Republicans are right to say they should be federally supervised private contractors on the grounds that incompetent civil servants are nearly impossible to fire and European countries have mostly found that the privatized system works well.

While the quarreling continues, Mr. Bush has cleverly moved to use National Guard personnel to bolster airport security, but it is not a long-term fix.

If neither side will yield, there ought to be a deal and a test: Some airports could be completely federalized, while others remain private. After a year, the issue could be revisited to see what the long-term policy should be.

Meantime, good things seem to be happening with border security. As major immigrants-rights spokesmen attest, the Bush administration and Congress are resisting calls from exclusionist groups to limit immigration in response to terrorism.

Not one of the September 11 hijackers was an immigrant legal or illegal. All of them entered the United States legally, either on temporary student or tourist visas.

Even chief hijacker Mohamed Atta, though his tourist visa had expired, met existing requirements by applying for a student visa.

“Our intelligence agencies, State Department and immigration service act like stovepipes. They don’t share information either before or after a visitor gets here,” asserted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, in an interview.

As a result, she said, the head of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was able to get his doctorate at Michigan State, and one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers had been a student at Wichita State. Hundreds of persons obtain student visas to attend classes in the United States and then disappear.

Feinstein and Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, have introduced tough legislation to require intelligence-sharing, to issue computer-traceable visas to visitors, and to require universities to report on students with visas.

They also would ban student visas for citizens from countries the State Department has listed as sponsoring terrorism, though the ban could be waived.

Sens. Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, in cooperation with the Bush administration, are proposing a rival bill that omits Mrs. Feinstein’s requirement for an identity card for all aliens, including green-card holders.

Once differences between the bills are ironed out and the process reportedly is moving swiftly that measure should be passed and signed into law this year.

It will take time for the government to hire and train a new corps of visa officers and equip them with on-time intelligence, but that’s all the more reason passing the legislation should be a priority.

The House and Senate Judiciary committees, meanwhile, should resolve to give serious oversight to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s policy of detaining suspected terrorists and wiretapping lawyer-client communications.

Mr. Ashcroft isn’t necessarily wrong in crowding normal civil liberties in order to fight terrorism, but Congress needs to make sure what he is doing works and isn’t excessive.

Mr. Kennedy and Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, are working out a bioterrorism package to upgrade the nation’s public health infrastructure, speed vaccine production, and train medical personnel.

There’s a difference in funding levels between their proposal and the administration’s $3 billion vs. the White House’s $1.8 billion but both sides claim that problem will be worked out.

So why can’t the same happen on a stimulus package and spending levels? Mr. Bush issued a veto threat last week against spending that exceeds the $40 billion already approved for the Pentagon, New York and counterterror operations, or that goes above $686 billion in new domestic discretionary spending.

Democrats are insisting on adding money $20 billion in West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd’s package and $18.5 billion in Wisconsin Rep. David Obey’s that the administration claims it can’t spend. Surely there’s a number we can afford that won’t put long-term strains on what’s left of the federal budget surplus.

After last week’s party-line Senate Finance Committee vote on an economic stimulus skewed toward lower-income workers, it is hard to see how Congress can pass any legislation this year to boost the economy unless Mr. Bush proposes a compromise and starts negotiating right away.

And then there’s energy. What’s called for is Democrats allowing limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and Republicans accepting higher fuel-efficiency standards and conservation programs. What’s needed is a national-unity deal to make America less dependent on Persian Gulf oil.

What’s needed, in fact, is a series of national-unity deals. We’ve had them on some issues. Why not on the rest?

Morton Kondracke is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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