Port dispute may help prompt deal on seaport security bill

The increasing intensity of the administration's involvement in the West Coast port dispute between labor and international shipping companies may prompt it to become more involved in helping the House and Senate reach an agreement on a seaport security bill, Senate aides said Tuesday.

"I think the West Coast labor dispute and the fact that it's been sort of devastating is starting to create recognition of issues with respect to security," said one Senate aide.

Since last spring, the Senate has offered several versions of a shippers' user fee based on the type of cargo that would help the government pay for increased port security, but the House has resisted on constitutional grounds that spending bills must originate in the House.

Senate aides are planning to scale back their proposal and give the administration more flexibility in implementing a user fee under a new version they will present to the House as early as Wednesday. They said they have been in contact with the White House.

But House aides said the negotiations are still in limbo, and the administration has not visibly raised its profile on the issue.

The positioning came as President Bush sent government lawyers to a federal court, where they won an order late Tuesday for an 80-day cooling off period that returned workers to their jobs and ended the stoppage. But Democrats raised questions about the effort.

"It is hurting truckers and rail operators who carry goods to other parts of America. It's hurting farmers and ranchers and manufacturers, retailers and consumers who make, buy and sell the products that pass through our ports," Bush said Tuesday.

A board Bush commissioned Monday to look into the situation reported Tuesday that it had "no confidence that the parties will resolve the West Coast ports dispute within a reasonable time."

The main impasse, which is costing the U.S. economy up to $2 billion per day, is over the introduction of new technology and its implications for the workers, as well as future arbitration rules.

When union workers began slowing down in September because of safety concerns, they said, PMA locked them out of their jobs. The move drew reaction from Capitol Hill.

"I have concerns about this extreme federal remedy, especially at a time when at least one of the parties, the unions, have agreed to go back to work," said House Education and the Workforce Employer-Employee Relations Subcommittee ranking member Robert Andrews, D-N.J., Tuesday at a committee hearing on the matter.

But Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he supported the president's efforts, even though he rarely feels the federal government should step into labor disputes.

"It's not about who's right and who's wrong," he said. "Our slightly growing economy is being damaged."

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