WASHINGTON – Nearly one year after the nation went to war against terrorism, Congress is still struggling to pass legislation to better protect and prepare the nation for the next terrorist assault.
As the anniversary of Sept. 11 passed, the Senate was making slow progress on a bill to create a new Homeland Security Department, the agency President Bush wants to spearhead the anti-terror drive.
The House and Senate continue to squabble over legislation to shield insurance companies from astronomical claims from future terrorist attacks despite months of warnings from the administration and the industry that failure to act could cripple the economy.
Legislation to improve security at the nation's ports, thought to be highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks, is tied up in House-Senate negotiations, and the debate on arming airline pilots goes on. With the new budget year beginning Oct. 1, the House and Senate have yet to agree on a defense spending bill that significantly boosts the military budget.
The situation was very different a year ago, when Congress responded to the Sept. 11 attacks with a remarkable display of unity.
Within a week, Congress approved and the president signed a $40 billion anti-terror bill and a resolution authorizing the use of military force against those responsible for the attacks. Within weeks, a major bailout of the airline industry and a measure significantly increasing the powers of law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism were enacted.
Congress followed by approving legislation to improve airport security, with a new federal work force for airport screening; to tighten border security; and to better prepare the nation for bioterrorism threats.
But cross-party cooperation has broken down on other measures, often over issues unrelated to the terrorist threat.
The Republican-controlled House passed its homeland security department bill in July, but it is now stalled on the Senate floor, mainly over a worker rights issue. Democrats object to Bush's demands for greater authority to hire and fire workers in the new agency and to exempt them from union coverage for reasons of national security.
Bush, speaking in Iowa Monday, said the Senate should "worry more about the security of the American people and less about special interests in Washington.'' The Senate, he said, "better not pass a bad bill, otherwise I will veto it.''
The standoff has led to some sharp election-year exchanges. "I believe the bill being debated in the Senate puts America at risk,'' House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said last week.
House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri shot back that GOP leaders in the House have "a congenital defect; they can't let anything come out of here that isn't down to the last word what they exactly want.''
The insurance industry has warned of dire consequences to the economy and the loss of thousands of construction jobs if prospective builders can't get affordable terrorism insurance. But the Senate has balked at the House attempt to ban punitive damage awards in civil lawsuits, long a sticking point between the two parties.
Bush on Monday again urged Congress to act: "Congress needs to pass a bill that is good for the hard hats of America, not good for the trial lawyers, and get a terrorism insurance bill to my desk so over 300,000 workers can find work and get back to work,'' he said.
The president is also pressing Congress to send him a bill, in the works before Sept. 11 but deemed crucial to the nation's economic security, to boost domestic energy independence. The two sides remain at odds on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and how to pay for energy-related tax breaks.
Money is also a big issue in the port security bill, with the House opposing a plan by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., to impose a user fee to help pay for security improvements.
Hollings' committee this week may also return to the aviation security bill passed last November, responding to the reality that many larger airports will not be able to meet the Dec. 31 deadline for installing machines to detect explosives in luggage.