Key Democrat wants to revisit border fence act

The incoming Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee says his top priorities would be ensuring that all cargo containers are scanned before arriving at U.S. seaports, increasing funding and security for rail and mass transit systems, passing an authorization bill for the Homeland Security Department, and possibly reversing legislation that calls for building a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico.

"It's a good time to be a Democrat," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the committee who is poised to take over the helm when the new Congress convenes in January. In a post-election interview, Thompson said he is "convinced that technology is available" to scan all cargo containers at foreign seaports. GOP lawmakers and the shipping industry, however, contend that scanning all cargo is not technologically feasible and would disrupt commerce.

Thompson said he plans to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff Tuesday, noting that establishing better communications between the committee and the department is at the top of his agenda for the meeting. "He cannot be a stranger before the Homeland Security committee," Thompson said of Chertoff. "He's going to have to be fully engaged and I'm going to demand that of him."

Thompson said he also plans to complete a Homeland Security authorization bill "very early" in the new congressional session. His committee has passed an authorization bill every year for the past three years. But a final bill has never cleared Congress because the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee never completed companion legislation.

The Senate, however, is expected to be controlled by Democrats come January. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., expects to become chairman of the committee, one of his aides said. Thompson believes Lieberman will do an authorization bill.

When it comes to border security and immigration, Thompson said he hopes to "re-visit" legislation that gives Homeland Security authority to put new fencing and barriers along the Mexican border. He said the new Congress could "perhaps do away" with the legislation or seek more virtual, rather than physical, fencing through technology, such as sensors and cameras.

Thompson also wants to create a grant program to fund interoperable communications, his aides said. He made an unsuccessful bid in September to authorize $3.1 billion for interoperable communications as part of a bill to reform the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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