WASHINGTON—The Senate approved a port-security bill Thursday that its sponsors said would make the nation safer from terrorist attack, after it rejected a plan to inspect every inbound cargo container for nuclear weapons.
The measure, approved 98-0, would require installing radiation monitors at the country's 22 largest ports and would authorize a pilot program involving three foreign ports to scan all cargo containers headed to the United States.
It also would establish a new office within the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate port security and would order the department to prepare a plan for getting cargo moving again after an attack. One study estimated that a 12-day shutdown of the ports could cost the U.S. economy $58 billion.
"We have done a lot to secure our ports, but they are still too porous," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "This bill represents a multipronged approach to plug the holes in our port security."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the bill's lead author, who has been pushing for tougher port security since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said Senate approval cleared the way for possible final action before the end of the year.
"A big hurdle has been passed," Murray said. "It's a huge step in a very positive direction."
The House of Representatives has approved its own version of the bill, and a compromise will have to be negotiated. Congress is scheduled to recess in early October but could come back after the November elections to finish pending legislation.
Senate passage of the bill comes more than two years after the 9-11 commission concluded that the nation's ports could be more vulnerable to attack than commercial aviation. More than 95 percent of the nation's trade—worth nearly $1 trillion—flows through more than 360 U.S. ports every year. Virtually all of it is carried on 8,500 foreign-flagged vessels that make 55,000 calls at American ports annually.
About 5 percent of the nearly 11 million cargo containers that arrive in the United States annually is opened and inspected. Some are scanned for nuclear material.
Congress' Government Accountability Office has raised questions about the effectiveness of the program that identifies which "high-risk" containers are inspected and has expressed concern about the effectiveness of the radiation monitors now being used.
Efforts to pass a port-security bill had languished until an uproar last February over the disclosure that a Dubai company had been approved to operate a handful of U.S. ports.
The measure picked up more steam over the past few weeks as congressional Republicans have ratcheted up their national security agenda. Democrats said Republicans were scrambling to shore up their national security credentials for political reasons before the elections.
"Five years after 9-11, repeated failures by Bush Republicans have left our ports vulnerable and open to terrorist attack," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement.
Republicans dismissed such allegations.
"This is an important bill for our homeland security," said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the lead Republican sponsor of the measure.
Murray said any political motivations for moving the bill weren't important.
"To me it doesn't matter," she said. "Getting it done is the right thing to do."
The Senate tabled, 61-37, an amendment offered by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that would have required that 100 percent of the cargo containers headed for the United States be scanned within four years. Shippers would have picked up the cost.
"What are we waiting for?" Schumer said. "This mandates we inspect all cargo—no pilot programs, no tests, all containers—for nuclear weapons."
Schumer said the Homeland Security Department had been "derelict" by not requiring 100 percent inspections, that the technology existed to do it and that the cost would be $8 per container, not much when considering that it cost $2,000 to ship a container from Hong Kong to the West Coast.
Collins said the bill would move toward 100 percent inspections when it was "proved and feasible." Doing it prematurely could create a massive backlog of containers waiting on the docks to be inspected, she said.
The 22 large ports that would receive radiation scanners handle about 98 percent of the containers that come into the United States. Schumer's amendment would have required that the scanning take place overseas, before the containers are shipped.
The bill would authorize almost $3.3 billion in port-security funding over the next six years and another $400 million in grants to individual ports. Since 9-11, seaports have sought more than $4.3 billion in federal aid for security. The Department of Homeland Security has provided about 20 percent of the amount requested, about $876 million.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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