WASHINGTON — The House passed a comprehensive port security bill Thursday after a clash between Republicans and Democrats over a proposal to require inspections of all U.S.-bound containers for radiation. That Democrat-backed plan was defeated.

The House voted 421 to 2 in favor of the SAFE Ports Act, which establishes multiyear port security funding for the first time, allocating more than $4 billion over five years.

The legislation requires the Department of Homeland Security to deploy nuclear and radiological detection systems at 22 U.S. ports by the end of the 2007 fiscal year, which lawmakers maintain will cover 98 percent of incoming containers. It would implement a Transportation Workers Information Credential program, establish a director of cargo security and a joint government-private sector operations center, require the Homeland Security chief to develop protocols for resuming trade after a security breach and make permanent two port security programs under which foreign cargo is screened.

The Senate is to take up a similar companion bill that passed through committee Tuesday. Democrats could once again try to offer an amendment on 100 percent scanning of all containers.

Democrats in Congress are seeking to make port security an election-year issue. They have pressed for 100 percent inspection of all U.S.-bound cargo, arguing the estimated 5 percent scanning rate of the 11 million to 12 million containers entering the U.S. annually is dangerously low. Republican leaders in the House and Senate have resisted full inspection, maintaining it is not feasible because it could bring global commerce to a halt.

“The key to being able to carry out [scanning of all containers] in the future is better equipment that scans faster,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R., Calif.), an original co-sponsor of the SAFE Ports Act. “That’s what our bill does. It asks us to accelerate investment of new technology. It mandates that the Homeland Security secretary, if in fact he finds that to be usable, practical and adaptable … [to] negotiate with foreign countries to immediately put it in place. If they refuse, it gives our president and secretary the right to refuse to allow their cargo into the U.S. We don’t put a time line on it. We say as soon as it is feasible to do it.”

This story first appeared in the May 5, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.), who sponsored the amendment requiring 100 percent screening, said, “Scanning every container is feasible, it’s relatively cheap and it will not delay global commerce. If we continue to rely solely on a so-called risk-based strategy, the terrorists will simply put an atomic bomb in a low-risk container from Wal-Mart.”

A coalition of business groups, including the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, campaigned against such proposals, arguing they would disrupt global trade and cause a financial burden.

“It is always suspect when a member of Congress starts talking about something being relatively cheap,” said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the NRF. “The technology is theoretically available, but one [gamma ray] machine costs $1 million. We can’t even fully provide our own ports with sufficient scanning machines to be able to scan everything, so how in the world can we expect Bangladesh or sub-Saharan Africa to do it?”

Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at USA-ITA, said, “It isn’t easy to mandate that level of screening. In the short term, the technology is not there and that is why a risk-based assessment is the best thing we have today.”