DHS secretary weighs in on port security bill

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff encouraged lawmakers Tuesday to pass a maritime security bill that is not weighed down with extraneous provisions, indicating that his department supports the House's version of the legislation more than the Senate's approach.

House and Senate conference leaders are trying to resolve their differences and pass a final bill by the end of this week, and one of them, House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., said he is "cautiously optimistic" that a final agreement will be reached.

House Intelligence ranking member Jane Harman, D-Calif., co-author of the House version of the bill, asked Chertoff during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing what he is doing to engage lawmakers this week. "Any more that you can do to close on this ... I think would be appreciated by the American people," she said.

Chertoff said he and the department's legislative affairs staff have been meeting with lawmakers and aides and plan more meetings over the next 24 hours. But he said the bill should "be of minimum encumbrance" and free of items that "weigh down" the underlying legislation.

"I think the bill that came out of the House was a good bill," he said. Although he did not mention it, the Senate attached numerous provisions to its version, including an amendment that would authorize $3.5 billion for mass transit security grant programs and $1.2 billion for freight and passenger rail security.

"It is appropriate and timely to have port legislation," Chertoff said. "What we want to do is, let's have the ports bill, let's not have the goulash bill."

Democrats also continued to press Chertoff on scanning cargo at foreign ports, noting that a nuclear bomb could be smuggled into the country in cargo containers. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called on Chertoff to ensure that, within three years, all cargo is scanned at foreign ports before being put on ships bound for the United States. Chertoff countered: "We don't own the foreign ports, congressman."

The secretary said setting an artificial deadline for scanning abroad would be equivalent to saying that cancer has to be cured within three years. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said Chertoff was making a false analogy. He said a better analogy would be to say that, within three years, everybody should be examined to determine whether they have cancer.

"I just think that your administration has not done the job to protect us against the greatest [terrorist] threat," Markey said. "We are saying steps can be taken to screen."

Not to be intellectually outmaneuvered, Chertoff shot back: "It's a little bit like Congress mandating that every foreigner screen themselves for cancer."

Chertoff added that by the end of this year, 80 percent of cargo arriving at U.S. seaports will be put through a radiation monitor. Chertoff said 100 percent of the cargo will be scanned at U.S. seaports by the end of next year.

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