WASHINGTON – House Democrats moved Tuesday to implement some of the unfulfilled recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission as the first in a string of bills over the next two weeks aimed at asserting their new control over Congress.
The bill would redirect homeland security funds to more urban areas based on their likelihood of becoming a target of terrorists and eventually require that all cargo containers bound for the United States be scanned for nuclear materials and explosives.
"Here's a chance for Congress to stop dragging its feet," said Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the new Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "It's been three years since the 9/11 commission issued its report. Now is the time to put words into action."
Republicans found themselves in the same position that Democrats said they had occupied the past 12 years when the GOP had control of the House, frozen out in writing the bill and with no chance to offer amendments to it.
"We as Republicans had no say whatsover on this legislation," said Rep. Peter Kingof New York, the homeland security panel's former chairman and now its senior GOP member. He said the bill "gives false hope to the American people" because technology for scanning all cargo containers is not available now.
The bill is the first of six that new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised to pass within the first 100 hours of Congress. On Wednesday, the House is scheduled to take up a bill increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, followed by another bill Thursday to expand federally funded stem cell research.
The anti-terrorism bill also would also require screening of all air cargo on passenger planes and consolidate efforts to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Its fate was less clear in the Senate, which held hearings Tuesday on many of the same issues. Because of questions about the costs and impact of some provisions -- such as how more intensive cargo inspections might hamper global commerce -- it is uncertain how much of the bill is likely to become law.
House leaders, who symbolically labeled the bill H.R. 1, were eager to contrast their action on the issue with the Republican-run Congress' failure to approve some of the 41 recommendations the commission. That panel made its proposals three years ago in an effort to prevent a repeat of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Democrats will be -- and hopefully we'll be doing this in a bipartisan way -- putting the protection of the American people very high on our priority list," Pelosi told reporters on Monday.
Though many Republicans were expected to support the measure, some objected to provisions of the bill and the speed with which Democratic leaders planned to whip it through the House, bypassing hearings.
Democrats declined to cite the bill's total price tag. A similar measure introduced in the Senate last year by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., was estimated at $53 billion over five years, but it included some costs not covered in the new proposal. Funding for the bill would come in separate spending legislation.
The House also planned to vote on a separate measure creating a new House committee that would closely monitor the budget and actions of the U.S. intelligence community. Congressional jurisdiction over intelligence is currently spread among several committees.
The bill moves toward the Sept. 11 commission's recommendation to centralize congressional oversight in either a joint House-Senate panel or one committee in each chamber.
Many of the commission's recommendations have already been enacted, including some changes in the organization of intelligence institutions, in air security systems and in strategies for disrupting terrorist financing.
Other recommendations were not acted upon because of costs and political differences. Among them was one that would give Transportation Security Administration screeners at airports the right to join unions and provide them with whistle-blower protections.
The Democrats' bill would direct the Homeland Security Department to phase in the inspection of all cargo carried on passenger aircraft over the next three years. It would also require scanning of all containers bound aboard ships for the U.S. Large ports would be given three years and smaller ports five years to comply.
Homeland security grants would be allocated to states according to risk assessment rather than population under the bill, which also calls for shoring up ways to keep nuclear weapons out of terrorists' hands. Better emergency communications systems for state and local first-responders would be sought as well.