WASHINGTON — Congress sent President Bush a sweeping national security conference report Friday that would require 100 percent scanning of all cargo containers at foreign ports within five years.
The House passed the conference report by a vote of 371-40 Friday after the Senate approved the legislation late Thursday night by a vote of 85-8.
President Bush must still sign the bill. Although the White House has voiced objections to the cargo scanning mandate and other provisions, the administration has stopped short of issuing a veto threat against the national security bill, which would implement some of the findings of the 9/11 Commission, the bipartisan panel that made 41 recommendations to strengthen national security and help prevent another terrorist attack.
Democrats were able to check off another item on their short legislative accomplishment list with the passage of the national security report. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) had made the passage of the security and minimum wage bills a top priority as part of her first "100 hours" agenda. The House and Senate passed bills earlier this year, but the legislation was shelved for four months because of differences between the two bills, and a conference committee was not convened until this month.
"Implementing the recommendations will fundamentally change the way the President and Congress deal with the matters relating to terrorism, and it will make us more unified and more effective," Pelosi told the House. "That is because this bill closes loopholes and weakens terrorists seeking to exploit and leave Americans vulnerable."
The bill would require foreign port authorities to scan 100 percent of U.S.-bound cargo containers for radiation and nuclear materials, as well as x-ray them for suspicious materials. Democrats and proponents of tougher security measures argued that the estimated 5 percent scanning rate of the almost 12 million cargo containers entering the country is dangerously low and could provide a window of opportunity for terrorists trying to create chaos at U.S. ports.
But the leadership was forced to make compromises on the measure to get the bill passed.
The 100 percent scanning measure drew strong opposition from many Republicans in the House and Senate, as well as large importers and shippers that argued that the technology was not available, installing scanning equipment in hundreds of foreign ports was unworkable and such a mandate could cripple global commerce at the ports. They said the most effective approach to blocking radioactive materials or weapons from reaching U.S. ports was a multilayered approach taken by the Homeland Security Department involving targeting high-risk cargo containers, checking manifests of container ships at foreign ports and utilizing a public-private program to ensure the safety of supply chains.Democrats ultimately pushed back the deadline contained in the House bill that required large foreign ports to phase in the technology to within five years instead of three. Another concession leaders made in the conference report was a provision that gives the Homeland Security secretary authority to extend the five-year deadline in two-year increments if ports cannot comply in time and meet certain conditions.
"It mandates screening of all containers on U.S.-bound ships in foreign ports within five years, but it gives the Homeland Security secretary flexibility in delaying the implementation in certain cases," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D., Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Apparel importers, who brought $89.2 billion worth of clothing and textiles into the country last year, were still unsatisfied with the compromises in the conference report.
"I don't consider it much of a compromise at all," said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. "It still creates a hard date" for compliance at hundreds of foreign ports. Lamar said the practical implication for the industry is a "big dose of uncertainty."
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