Series of homeland security bills await Congress' return

When members of Congress return to Washington this week, they are likely to turn their attention to several homeland security initiatives that were not finished late last year, including bills addressing bioterrorism, border security, terrorism insurance, and seaport security. In addition, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge plans to offer new proposals to provide resources for local fire, police, and medical teams and to boost border security, bioterrorism preparedness, and intelligence-sharing.

The House and Senate easily approved bioterrorism bills in December, and a conference committee is expected to convene as soon as Congress returns. Both bills would expand the national drug and vaccine stockpile and invest in new laboratories for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. States would get grants for bioterrorism planning, and hospitals would receive help to prepare their facilities to respond to bioterror attacks. Conferees will tackle the few differences that remain between the bills regarding food safety, water protection, and funding for state and local preparedness.

In the area of border security, the House just before Christmas approved a version of a bill sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. The legislation would upgrade visa processing, establish a better database of dangerous foreigners, boost the hiring and training of border officials, improve coordination with Canada, and bolster efforts to track foreigners in the United States. The Senate bill was put on hold at the 11th hour by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., whose own border security funding proposal failed to pass the Senate. With leaders of both parties on board, Kennedy hopes to work with Byrd and pass the bill shortly after Congress returns.

Additionally, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., have offered a bill to merge the Border Patrol branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service with the Customs Service and the Coast Guard. To help internal tracking efforts, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., plans to introduce a bill to make driver's license information more reliable.

Meanwhile, President Bush has signaled that he wants to sign a terrorism reinsurance bill to create a federal backstop for private insurance companies against future terrorist acts. The House reinsurance bill, approved in November, allows the government to loan money to insurers once the industry loses $1 billion. But it contains a number of controversial tort-reform measures, so few Democrats supported it. A pending Senate proposal is similar, but it does not require that the loans be paid back and contains fewer tort-reform provisions. The White House and industry lobbyists prefer the Senate version. The biggest hurdle may be inertia: This year, there may be less pressure to act.

Seaport security has also made Congress's agenda. The Senate has approved a bill that would spend about $1 billion over four years to bolster port security. The legislation would evaluate port-security threats, require ports to develop security plans, provide additional screening equipment, and mandate background checks and increased training for port personnel. The Transportation Department has backed the bill, and similar legislation is moving through the House.

Finally, before the White House or Congress considers funding for local emergency-response personnel, they'll have to decide whether to channel the money through the Justice Department or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. State and city governments are also fighting over who should receive the money. Of course, firefighters and others care more about getting the money fast than about the bureaucratic course the funds take.

"If the federal government wants to consider the fire service as its resource when terrorist incidents happen in this country," said Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, "then the federal government has the responsibility to step up to the plate."

Siobhan Gorman, Marilyn Werber Serafini, Louis Jacobson, and Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. contributed to this report.

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