Efforts to beef up port, rail security lose steam
After passage of an aviation security package last fall, security measures for railroads and ports appear to have all but drowned in a political quagmire.
After Sept. 11, Congress was in a bipartisan rush to pass legislation to beef up transportation security. But after passage of an aviation security package last fall, security measures for railroads and ports appear to have all but drowned in a political quagmire.
"We've spent all our time and effort on the last target, leaving no room for others," a Senate aide involved in the rail negotiations said of aviation.
"These guys don't like rails, and they don't want to spend money on rails," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., an ardent supporter of a $2 billion railroad security package that passed out of committee last year but has been blocked from Senate floor action by a series of "rolling holds" by Republicans.
While it has been reported that Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., held up the bill over moving railroad tracks in Mississippi, Lott said Wednesday that rail security is "being dealt with by others." He said his separate efforts to push tracks legislation go beyond the Gulf Coast state.
Administration officials hint that problems transcend parochial issues and charge that rail supporters are using "ham-handed efforts" to force the measure, one administration source said without elaborating.
However, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who included rail security in a larger package in committee this year, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who has backed numerous rail bills, were optimistic.
"We're working on it," Hollings said.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee plans to mark up its own rail package in the full committee next week, but floor prospects are unclear. Ranking member James Oberstar, D-Minn., plans to introduce a rail safety bill Thursday.
But the House is having trouble bringing a seaport security bill to the floor, where the Transportation panel has been trying since March to get its bill on the suspension calendar.
While House GOP leadership sources say the delay results from a deal leaders made with Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., on textiles and trade, Transportation panel members are having trouble reconciling port security's link with trade.
"It's been extremely frustrating," said a committee spokesman.
GOP leadership and appropriations staffers said the supplemental bill now being marked up is a potential target for the textile fix, but factors are at play in moving port security.
Senate aides contend a $3.6 billion port security package that passed unanimously in December has administration support, but House Republicans said administration officials support provisions in their $75 million bill.
Tensions are particularly high over a House provision that would expand cargo oversight beyond the Customs Department to include the Transportation Security Administration and the military.
The Senate would prefer to keep the authority within Customs. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., is reluctant to support a bill that dilutes his authority over Customs, aides said.
Meanwhile, recent reports of terrorists entering the country in cargo containers are increasing pressure on legislators to get to a House and Senate conference.
"If one container gets through, they'll close down the ports. It would be economic devastation far worse than the aviation system shutting down for a couple of months," said a Senate aide close to the efforts.