WASHINGTON – The House refused on Friday to require inspections of all cargo shipped on passenger airline flights, heeding arguments that technology is not available, and losing the freight would drive carriers into bankruptcy (search).
With its 211-191 vote, the House ignored election-year cries that the government must do what it takes to enhance security in an era of unabated terror threats. Currently, only a small percentage of cargo aboard passenger flights is inspected, and uninspected cargo is supposed to come only from shippers known to the government.
"If six planes are blown out of the sky a week from now or two weeks from now, are all of us going to go back to our districts and say, `We can't afford to do it?'" said Rep. Christopher Shays (search), R-Conn. "I can't do that."
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., cited estimates by the Transportation Security Administration (search) that it would take $700 million and the hiring of 9,000 additional inspectors to examine cargo thoroughly on passenger flights at the nation's largest airports. He said forbidding airlines to carry uninspected freight would have financially catastrophic effects on an industry that already has several struggling companies.
"You shut off air cargo, you close down the airlines," Rogers said.
The vote was on an amendment by Shays and Rep. Edward Markey (search), D-Mass., to a measure providing $32 billion for next year for the Homeland Security Department.
The overall bill was approved by 400-5. It would provide more money than President Bush proposed to help state and local emergency responders, though less than he wanted for cities considered the likeliest terrorist targets.
Last year, the House easily approved a similar provision requiring inspections of cargo aboard passenger flights, but it was never approved by the Senate.
Lobbying against this year's effort were the airline, airport and air freight industries, congressional aides said. Also helping to sink the proposal were money in the bill for research, 100 new cargo inspectors and dogs for detecting explosives, along with a requirement that the percentage of air cargo inspected be doubled.
House Democrats also lost a fresh attempt to annul a huge federal security contract with Accenture LLP, as lawmakers ignored arguments that the company's Bermuda-based parent firm was letting it avoid some U.S. taxes.
The near-party line 221-182 vote came despite Democrats' hopes that they had found a resonant campaign issue. Democrats argued that at a time of war and record budget deficits, the government should not award work worth up to $10 billion over 10 years to a company they said was shrinking its U.S. tax burden by incorporating offshore.
They ran into broad opposition from business and House GOP leaders. Accenture (search) supporters said canceling the contract would cost thousands of U.S. jobs and delay work on a project for developing high technology ways of screening foreigners as they enter or leave the country.
The House also voted 259-148 to kill a proposal by Rep. Thomas Tancredo, R-Colo., that would have barred Homeland Security money to states and municipalities that issue drivers' licenses to illegal aliens, or refuse to share information on them with the federal government.
Tancredo said his plan simply would have required local governments to heed current law, but his proposal sparked heated comments by opponents.
"He wants all of us who look a certain way, have certain names, speak a certain way to have big brother filter us out," said Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a member of the House Democratic leadership.
And early Friday, the House voted 237-171 to kill an effort by lawmakers from New York and other urban areas to shift $446 million for emergency responders from a nationwide program to one for cities considered likely terror targets.