High-priority security bill remains stalled

By Chris Strohm

April 23, 2007

Although it was touted by Democrats as one of their highest priorities when the new Congress began, legislation to implement unfulfilled recommendations of the 9/11 Commission remains in limbo with no indication when the House and Senate will complete the bill and send it to the White House.

Democratic leaders appear to be trying to avoid a public relations mess that could result by sending both the 9/11 Commission bill and the war supplemental spending bill at the same time to President Bush, who has vowed to veto both for different reasons.

"There hasn't been any movement on conference and we don't know that there will be in the foreseeable future," a Senate aide said late last week about the 9/11 Commission bill.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said the committee is waiting for direction from Senate leaders about proceeding to conference.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the next move is up to House leaders.

But when asked, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: "No timeline just yet. We are different bodies with different rules. Preliminary discussions [are] already occurring with Senate."

The spokesman cautioned against reading too much into the delay on conferencing the bills.

But the importance of the legislation for House Democrats was demonstrated by their giving it the symbolic "H.R. 1" bill number and making it the first substantive measure to pass the House in January. At the time, Democrats said the bill was critical to homeland security because it addressed 9/11 Commission recommendations that either were not implemented or were only partially implemented.

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., acknowledged in an interview that completing the supplemental spending bill has overshadowed work on the security bill.

"I'm patient as long as we get it done," he said. "I know that the president is dangling vetoes over our head right and left."

Bush has threatened to veto a final 9/11 Commission bill that contains a provision -- now found in both the House and Senate versions -- that would give collective bargaining rights to federal airport screeners. While Thompson said he believes there are enough votes in the House to override the veto, the forecast in the Senate is less certain.

A Senate aide said Republicans will work to strip the provision in conference. "There will be somebody that will try to pull that out," the aide said.

To that, Thompson replied, "Good luck."

Conferees will also need to resolve several glaring differences between the House and Senate bills, especially with regard to distributing homeland security grants, scanning cargo containers, whether to declassify the overall intelligence budget and whether to make changes in a program that allows foreigners to come to the United States without visas.

"The homeland security grants, of course, will be contentious," one Senate aide said. "Both bills provide the vast majority of homeland security funding on the basis of risk, but the bills differ in the minimum amount of money guaranteed to each state so they can all achieve a basic level of preparedness."

The House bill, for example, would guarantee that each state receive at least 0.25 percent of total funding under the state homeland security grant program, the law enforcement terrorism prevention program and the urban area security initiative program.

The Senate bill would guarantee each state at least 0.45 percent of state homeland security grants and has different formulas for the other grant programs.

Asked about these differences, Thompson expressed his willingness to compromise on the funding formula and several other major issues facing conferees.

But he indicated he will stand firm on cargo scanning provisions in the House bill, which would require the Homeland Security Department to ensure, within five years, that all containers are scanned at foreign ports.

The Senate bill would require the department to develop a plan for scanning all cargo abroad, but does not specify a timeline. The shipping industry and many Republicans argue that meeting a mandated deadline might not be feasible and could disrupt trade.

"We will press that issue," Thompson said. "I think there is enough technology, and enough smart people, that we can put that together without impeding commerce one bit."

The House bill also contains provisions not in the Senate bill, and vice versa. For example, the House bill has unique titles for preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and for implementing 9/11 Commission recommendations dealing with international relations.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill authorizes billions of dollars in spending for homeland security programs and includes provisions dealing with rail and mass transit security.

The House passed a separate bill covering rail and mass transit security. But a House aide said it has not yet been decided whether that bill will be rolled into the 9/11 Commission bill.

"Technically, we can't go to conference with what we have now until there is some kind of an agreement on [what] we're going to conference," another aide said.

By Chris Strohm

April 23, 2007