On Capitol Hill, homeland security agenda is crowded

Familiar autumn rituals are unfolding on Capitol Hill, as appropriators struggle to complete their 13 spending bills, leaders maneuver legislation into place for the final weeks of the session-and the parties hustle toward the midterm elections in November.

But this is not a typical September in Washington. On the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, talk of war with Iraq and a "Code Orange" terror alert hang over the Capitol. Meanwhile, the legislative machinery is grinding through an assortment of bills that were not on the agenda-or were cast in starkly different terms-one year ago.

Already, Congress has passed myriad bills to improve airport security and assist the reeling airline industry, tighten U.S. borders and help the communities that bore the brunt of the attacks. The Senate Budget Committee released a fact sheet this week detailing "more than $75 billion in budget authority" that Congress has approved in response to the attacks.

And the Senate is currently engrossed in a debate over creation of a Homeland Security Department-which could be the crown jewel of the congressional response to the attacks. The Senate is expected to spend at least another full week on the bill, followed by what could be an acrimonious conference committee to reconcile differences with the House.

But other bills related to the terrorist attacks are pending as well, with tremendous implications for powerful interest groups.

Long-awaited and controversial reform of the Immigration and Naturalization Service is being considered as part of the debate over creation of the Homeland Security Department, as is the question of extending a Dec. 31 deadline for baggage screening at the nation's airports. Legislation to tighten security at the nation's seaports is the focus of a House-Senate conference.

The question is whether these bills can overcome peripheral issues, Election Day pressures and an extremely short legislative calendar before the 107th Congress adjourns.

Congress appears divided over whether to extend a baggage-screening deadline of Dec. 31 for all airports included in the aviation security legislation passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The House passed a provision in its bill creating a Homeland Security Department to extend the deadline for one year.

But several senators have objected to including such a provision in their bill, meaning the issue appears headed for negotiations within the eventual House-Senate conference.

"It's absolutely crucial to keep with this date," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Acting Undersecretary of Transportation for Security James Loy told a Senate panel Tuesday that Congress should not wipe out the deadline because 90 percent of airports will meet it.

He asked Congress for more flexibility in the use of screening equipment, trained dogs and hand-searched bags.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., introduced legislation last month to provide the Transportation Security Administration with more flexibility in meeting the deadline.

Sources said Ensign is negotiating with Senate Commerce Chairman Hollings, ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., and TSA officials on possible compromise language.

The Sept. 11 attacks had immediate effects on U.S. immigration policy, reinvigorating criticism of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

While pro-immigration forces saw the debate over INS restructuring as an opportunity to correct old injustices, social conservatives sought to toughen immigration regulations.

However, debate over individual INS reform bills was soon overtaken by Congress' consideration of a proposed new Homeland Security Department-which as envisioned, would absorb the duties of several agencies, including the INS.

The Homeland Security Department bill being debated this week in the Senate includes language proposed by Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to reorganize the INS, which anti-immigration groups claim would increase "mass" immigration.

The House version of the Homeland Security Department legislation, which passed 295-132 in July, approved the White House's call for moving INS border control and enforcement to the new agency-while keeping immigration services and adjudications in the Justice Department.

However, advocates for looser immigration controls have argued that giving the new Homeland Security Department even partial control over the INS will come at the expense of immigrants' civil rights.

The security of the nation's seaports has worried analysts for years, and has slowly crept into the consciousness of policymakers on Capitol Hill.

The Port and Maritime Security Act-which was introduced in the Senate more than a year ago but took on more significance after the Sept. 11 attacks-has been in a House-Senate conference committee since June.

The key sticking points are over funding and whether there is a fair way to impose a user fee on shippers that some senators are proposing, aides close to the negotiations say.

The bill would create a new port security task force to coordinate efforts, require the Coast Guard to develop procedures for seaport vulnerability, increase training, and offer loan guarantees and grants to qualifying ports to make safety improvements.

"The feeling is that it will be worked out in a week or two," one Senate aide said Monday.

Pamela Barnett, April Fulton, Brody Mullins and Mark Wegner contributed to this report.