WASHINGTON – House-passed requirements for intensified screening of cargo on passenger aircraft and ship-borne goods heading toward the U.S. are unlikely to survive in the Senate, a House leader on security issues conceded Wednesday.
The provisions were part of a House bill that was ballyhooed as the first legislation to pass in the Democratic-controlled Congress this year. Approval was meant to signal the new leadership's priorities in pushing through security recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, told reporters that two key provisions of the House bill are unlikely to make it through the Senate.
"With the exception of ports and cargo screening," he said, "everything else should go through."
In addition to the cargo-screening measures, the House bill provided funds to improve emergency communications systems, make it harder for terrorists to obtain nuclear weapons, and improve information-sharing between federal, state and local agencies.
Thompson said his staff has heard from Senate staff members about what's realistic to expect as the Senate considers the House-passed homeland security bill. It is uncertain when the Senate will begin considering its version of the measure.
The Bush administration and other opponents of the two screening proposals have said the technology does not exist to scan all U.S.-bound cargo in foreign ports for radiation, and all air cargo loaded onto passenger planes for explosives.
Critics have further complained that implementing the measures would slow global commerce to a crawl.
Homeland Security Department officials contend that through a variety of methods, they now screen all high-risk cargo, but only a small percentage is actually physically inspected.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, believes his panel's bill "will be compatible with the goals and spirit of the House bill," Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said in a statement.
Thompson also indicated to reporters that the Senate may balk at the percentage of homeland security grants guaranteed to states as a bare minimum, before any consideration is given to the risk of a terrorist attack.
In the House bill, that percentage was agreed to as 0.25 percent. Thompson said the figure might go up to 0.50 or 0.75.
Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration and the House have generally supported spending more money based on risk. The Senate, where many leaders come from smaller or rural states, have been more inclined to support traditional funding formulas that guarantee some share of the pot to all, irrespective of risk.
Thompson also indicated he hopes that by the mid-March anniversary of the Madrid, Spain, train bombing of 2004, his committee will be able to introduce legislation in the House to provide rail security grant funding.
"We clearly do not do nearly enough to secure passenger-rail traffic," he said.
Meanwhile, a Government Accountability Office report on progress made since the Sept. 11 attacks found potential weaknesses in the handling of radioactive materials.
During an undercover test, a small amount of radioactive material was carried across the border by GAO investigators with phony documents. GAO is Congress' investigative arm.
Even though the radiation monitors properly signaled the presence of radioactive material, the investigators were able to enter the U.S. because of fake documents that customs inspectors failed to check for authenticity.