Panel defeats comprehensive cargo screening amendment

Under intense election-year pressure from interest groups, Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday defeated an amendment from Democrats that would have required all U.S.-bound cargo to be inspected at foreign ports.

By an 18-16 vote, Republicans rejected the amendment, sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., during the committee's markup of the House's leading port security bill. Voting for the amendment were all the panel's Democrats, joined by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who broke with his party and explained that he believed that Congress needed to establish a firm deadline for scanning cargo abroad.

Markey's amendment would have required foreign ports to scan all cargo bound for the United States within three years. At the markup, which was still under way at presstime, Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., and House Homeland Security Economic Security Subcommittee Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif., led opposition to the amendment, arguing that it is not technologically feasible and would harm U.S. commerce.

Democrats, however, said Congress and the Bush administration had kept delaying setting strong security requirements. "I don't think we need more studies of studies of studies of technology," said Intelligence ranking member Jane Harman, D-Calif. She added that members of the committee would "rue the day that we balked on setting a hard goal."

Despite their split over the cargo inspection amendment, Lungren and Harman have generally worked together as co-sponsors of the underlying bill.

Markey said his amendment was identical to a cargo screening bill by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., that was approved unanimously by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month. Nadler told reporters he believes the GOP leadership will try to kill his measure, but vowed to bring it to the House floor.

Homeland Security Committee Republicans have been under intense pressure from interest groups over Markey's amendment.

A coalition of industry groups mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to persuade Republicans to vote against the amendment. The liberal organization Americans United said it was running television ads in the districts of nine committee Republicans calling for all cargo to be inspected at foreign ports.

King said after the defeat of the Markey amendment that he was not influenced by the pressure, but observed that many Republicans felt the television ads were "a real cheap shot." He added, "To me, it's wrong to impose an artificial deadline when you don't have the technology."

In a related action during the markup, the committee unanimously approved an amendment by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., that would require the Homeland Security Department to evaluate the development of nuclear and radiological detection systems for use at foreign ports.

The amendment specifies that the Homeland Security secretary must determine within one year whether adequate technology can be deployed at foreign ports. If foreign governments refuse to cooperate, the secretary can refuse to accept cargo from their ports.

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