WASHINGTON – Anti-terror legislation sailed through the House on Tuesday, the first in a string of measures designed to fulfill campaign promises made by Democrats last fall.
Patterned on recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, the far-reaching measure includes commitments for inspection of all cargo carried aboard passenger aircraft and on ships bound for the United States.
The vote was a bipartisan 299-128.
"Our first and highest duty as members of this Congress is to protect the American people, to defend our homeland and to strengthen our national security," said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Several Republicans criticized the legislation as little more than political posturing in the early hours of a new Democratic-controlled Congress. Democrats want to "look aggressive on homeland security. This bill will waste billions of dollars, and possibly harm homeland security by gumming up progress already under way," said Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
In a written statement, the Bush administration listed several objections and said it could not support the measure as drafted but stopped short of a veto threat.
Democrats have pledged to make fiscal responsibility a priority in the new Congress, but they advanced the bill — their first of the year — without even a bare-bones accounting of the estimated cost. The funding will require follow-up legislation.
Legislation introduced in the Senate a year ago to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission had a price tag of more than $53 billion over five years.
The terrorism legislation is the first of six measures the House is expected to pass as Democrats work to get off to a quick start.
Next up is an increase in the minimum wage — set for passage on Wednesday — followed by relaxation of the limits on stem cell research conducted with federal funds and a measure directing the administration to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices for Medicare recipients.
Next week, the Democrats intend to clear legislation to cut the interest rate on student loans and to curtail tax breaks for the energy industry.
Each of the six bills would go to the Senate, and it could be months — if then — before they reach the White House.
Already, President Bush has signaled he would veto the stem cell bill, which is opposed by abortion foes. House supporters of the measure conceded at a news conference during the day that they do not have the two-thirds support needed to override a veto.
Depending on the outcome of that struggle, said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., "400,000 embryos will either be wasted or utilized to cure a disease."
The House labored over the terrorism bill as the Senate began work on legislation enacting stricter ethics rules — and Democrats continued to gain from last fall's elections.
Officials said that four of Bush's controversial appeals court appointees, their chances for confirmation doomed in the Democratic-controlled Senate, would not be renominated.
The four are William Haynes, William Myers, Terrence Boyle and Michael Wallace, all of whom were prevented from coming to votes last year when the Senate was under Republican control.
"The president is disappointed in this inaction and hopes that the days of judicial obstructionism are beyond us," said Dana Perino, deputy White House spokeswoman.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., saw it differently. "Democrats stand ready to work with the administration to confirm judges who are not extremists, either left or right," he said.
In the House, the anti-terror bill was fraught with political symbolism.
Democrats said it would enact virtually all of the unfulfilled recommendations of the 9/11 commission, and several members of the rank and file remarked that Republicans had failed to do so in five years since planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and scarred the Pennsylvanian countryside.
"Don't be fooled by those who say that this bill is moving too quickly," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. "It has been five years since 9/11. It has been three years since the 9/11 commission issued its report."
"The fact is that the bipartisan 9/11 commission gave the last Congress F's and D's in implementing its recommendations," said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va. "This Congress is determined to earn its A's in implementing its recommendations."
And Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said the measure "gives false hope to the American people" because technology for scanning all cargo containers is not yet available.
The legislation directs the Homeland Security Department to establish a system for inspecting all cargo carried on passenger aircraft over the next three years. It also requires scanning of all containers bound for the U.S., using the best available technology. Large ports would be given three years to comply, smaller ports five years.
While much of the debate revolved around the provisions dealing with cargo, the bill also requires the government to take the risk of terror attacks into greater account when distributing homeland security grants to the 50 states.
The measure also would centralize the government's efforts at preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists and would take steps to disrupt the black market for nuclear material.
"We will not be safe here as long as the worst weapons can fall into the worst hands," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash.
The measure also establishes a new program of grants to make sure local governments can communicate effectively in the event of a crisis.
One of the tragedies of 9/11 was the deaths of New York firefighters who were trapped inside the World Trade Center and could not hear urgent warnings to evacuate that were broadcast on police radios.
A companion measure, to establish a new House subcommittee with jurisdiction over intelligence matters, cleared on a vote of 239-188.