Senate approves port security bill

The Senate gave unanimous approval to a comprehensive maritime security bill Thursday and fueled optimism that a compromise can be negotiated with the House and sent to President Bush before November, allowing Republicans and Democrats alike to claim victory on a major election-year issue.

The Senate bill, which passed 98-0, would establish a $400 million port security grant program, require the Homeland Security Department to create a plan for resuming trade in the event of an attack and lay the groundwork for what Republicans say will ultimately lead to the scanning of all containers before they reach U.S. ports.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he wants to go to conference "as soon as we can," but indicated jurisdictional issues might have to be resolved.

Across the Hill, House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., said he is "optimistic" that a conference agreement will be reached. The House approved its version of the bill, 421-2, on May 4.

"I'm going to work as hard as I can," King said. "I believe we can get something done."

A House GOP aide said staffers were reading over the Senate bill, but believed that a conference could be completed.

A key Democrat also sounded optimistic. "In passing the bill, the Senate placed national security above partisan politics," said House Intelligence ranking member Jane Harman, D-Calif., who co-authored the House version. "Hopefully the legislation will move quickly through conference, and I look forward to the bill becoming law by the end of the year."

Unlike the House, the Senate approved an amendment that would authorize $3.5 billion for mass transit security grant programs and $1.2 billion for freight and passenger rail security.

The Senate also approved an amendment that requires the Homeland Security Department to scan all cargo abroad "as soon as" the secretary of Homeland Security determines doing so is feasible and will not disrupt trade.

And the bill requires the department to conduct test programs at three foreign ports for scanning all cargo, and to report on progress every six months to Congress.

But Senators slugged it out Thursday over competing amendments dealing with cargo scanning. The Senate voted 61-37 to table an amendment by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that would have required the Homeland Security Department to scan all cargo before it reaches U.S. shores within four years.

Schumer argued that the department would drag its feet on doing more scanning without a firm mandate. "When you do pilot projects and studies ... you will get delay," he said.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, countered that scanning all cargo abroad cannot be done until technology is found to be feasible and practical.

She noted that the bill also requires the nation's 22 largest ports, which handle 98 percent of all cargo coming into the country, to scan all containers by the end of 2007.

One amendment from Schumer did pass the Senate, however. It would authorize $70 million in fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2009 for a competitive grant program to research and develop nuclear and radiological detection equipment at U.S. seaports.

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