Dem says GOP's port bill tactics hurt bipartisan relations

The top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee says bipartisan relations on his panel have been damaged from the experience of pushing through a port security bill during last month's rush to recess for the fall elections.

House Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., told CongressDaily "there's no question" that the process of finishing the bill strained bipartisan relationships on the committee, mainly because Democrats were not allowed to offer amendments during final conference negotiations.

Thompson's comments come about two weeks before the elections, in which Democrats across the country are fighting high-stakes battles with Republicans to win control of the House, with both sides using the issue of homeland security in their campaigns.

Thompson faulted Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., for not allowing Democrats to offer amendments. King told Democrats when conference negotiations began that it was his intention to allow them to offer amendments. But no follow-up meeting was ever held.

Thompson said he feels that King lied to him. "When a person tells you to your face that you will have an opportunity to offer an amendment and then just absolutely ignores his word, that damages all the good will that has gone before in the committee," Thompson said. "Most of us come to conference with only our word, and when you violate your word to another member that damages relationships."

When asked for a response, a spokesman for King said only, "These comments don't warrant a response."

Democrats intended to offer amendments to the bill that would have boosted funding for rail and transit security and lifted the cap on the number of passenger and baggage screeners that the Transportation Security Administration can employ.

"All Chairman King had to do was give us an opportunity to present our amendments, and if we lost, then so be it," Thompson said.

Republican leaders convened one formal House-Senate conference meeting that allowed full Democratic participation, but the text of the pending port security conference agreement was not available. So, lawmakers gave their opening statements but were not allowed to offer amendments.

But the next day Republican conferees, at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., attached a bill to stop banks and credit-card companies from processing payments to the $12 billion online gambling industry. The online gambling measure was a legislative priority of the Family Research Council and other conservative Christian groups who play a critical role in the GOP presidential nominating process.

Though angered by this last-minute maneuver, Democrats ultimately voted overwhelmingly to approve the port security bill, saying it was too important to oppose. The bill was signed into law earlier this month.

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