Senate drops user fee plan to reach port security agreement

Senate Commerce Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., announced a tentative deal Thursday with House and Senate port security conferees on a bill in the works for two years to authorize several new anti-terrorism initiatives, but the agreement leaves out a way to pay for those initiatives.

While House Republicans said leadership still must clear the language. They are not prepared to call it a deal yet. A spokesman for House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, said he believed they "may very well have an agreement reached and a bill to be passed as soon as we come back [in November.]"

Over the course of negotiations, Hollings repeatedly had offered proposals that would impose user fees on shippers bringing cargo into or out of the nation's ports, to help pay for increasing security following the Sept. 11 attacks last year. The user fees were based on the current aviation security ticket fee program.

But House negotiators, led by Young, repeatedly dismissed the user fee proposals as a tax and said they were outside the scope of the conference. Hollings eventually dropped his efforts.

"While I preferred to include a guaranteed funding source for port security enhancements, I believe it is critical that we approve the essential elements of the legislation before this session ends," said Hollings.

"The House was just unwilling to accept any of it," a Hollings spokesman said.

A spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Chairman William Thomas, R-Calif., who had expressed concern about the user fee proposal as a tax, had not yet reviewed the deal.

Aides were expected to finalize the port security language and hash out remaining differences over port grants and the filing of manifests in the expectation that the conference would be able to vote on it the week after the November elections, aides said.

The bill would require ports, facilities and vessels to implement security plans and the Coast Guard to develop a regional plan to deter a security incident.

It would require the Transportation Department to develop regulations to secure ports and restrict security-sensitive area access to those who have undergone background checks. The bill would set up local port security committees to coordinate efforts involving intelligence, FBI, Customs, immigration and the Coast Guard.

The bill also would take steps to improve screening and inspection systems, implement cargo security standards and require ships to send electronic manifests to ports before gaining clearance to enter.

It would give the Coast Guard more authority to board ships entering U.S. ports and direct the Transportation secretary to assess the security of foreign ports.

The conference committee has been deadlocked on the issue since June.

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