- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

The House yesterday overwhelmingly passed a bill that calls for $5.5 billion over six years for port security and requires nearly all cargo entering U.S. seaports to be screened for radioactive materials by next year, a requirement the White House said may not be feasible.

The bill was approved 421-2, just months after congressional and public outcry scuttled a Dubai-owned company’s bid to purchase some U.S. port operations.

“One of the areas where we are most vulnerable are our ports,” said Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Improvements have been made since the September 11 attacks, he said, but “the reality is, more has to be done.”

The Senate has a similar bipartisan bill, and House supporters say a final measure could be approved into law relatively soon. “Within months, just maybe, we will accomplish what I would call a legislative miracle,” said Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat and one of the bill’s authors.

“This is a great day for America,” said Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican, and also an author of the bill.

While many had worked on the bill for a while, the scandal earlier this year over DP World’s bid to buy terminal operations in several U.S. ports quickly pushed ports security to the forefront, and both parties immediately pledged improvements.

“Clearly the Dubai Ports World [dispute] — if there was a silver lining — was able to crystallize Congress’ attention,” said Rep. Vito J. Fossella, New York Republican.

The bill would strengthen existing port security programs and also would create a new grant program for port security projects. The new program would be authorized at $400 million per year for the next six years, for a total of $2.4 billion.

The Homeland Security secretary would have to develop a strategy for cargo and maritime security, including a plan for resuming trade in the event of a port attack.

The department would have to screen 98 percent of containers entering U.S. seaports, for nuclear and radiological materials, by September 2007. Also, the top facility security officer at each port would have to be an American citizen, and the department would have to fully implement an identification-card system for port security workers.

The White House, in a memo, voiced concern over the cargo-screening requirement, saying the September deadline “might not be feasible given the current state of detector acquisition, installation, and development.” Administration officials also questioned the necessity of the new port security grant program, saying it would “duplicate” existing funding streams and could make it more difficult for the administration to quickly target port money where it’s needed.

Still, President Bush praised the House for approving the bill. “I look forward to working with Congress on passage of legislation that will make our people safer and facilitate trade,” he said.

House Democrats yesterday argued that the bill doesn’t go far enough. Their proposal to require that all cargo be scanned overseas before it’s shipped, and be sealed with a special tamper-proof seal, was defeated, 202-222.

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