WASHINGTON — Republican and Democratic senators agreed to a compromise Tuesday, scaling back a proposal that would have required all U.S.-bound cargo containers in foreign ports to be inspected for radiation within five years.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) had been set to offer an amendment to a port security bill in the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that required the 100 percent inspections. Instead, he agreed to insert language in the underlying bill that said foreign ports shall implement an integrated scanning system “as soon as possible and practicable” to scan all containers entering the U.S.

“It is a little open-ended,” said Alex Formuzis, communications director for Lautenberg. “The Lautenberg language in this bill is a very strong first step toward screening 100 percent of all cargo containers before they enter the U.S.”

Democrats in Congress are pressing for inspection in foreign ports of the estimated 12 million cargo containers shipped to the U.S. annually. Many experts, lawmakers and business groups maintain the number of containers inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol — roughly 5 percent — is dangerously low.

However, 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, has campaigned against such proposals, arguing they would severely disrupt global trade and could hurt businesses.

“It could have had a significant impact on the supply chain and slow down all cargo moving through it,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president of global supply chain policy at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, referring to Lautenberg’s original proposal.

Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the NRF, said, “Our concern is, we are jumping the gun here because it has problems from both a technological perspective and from a practical administrative perspective. When you talk about places like Bangladesh or sub-Saharan Africa, how in the world will they pay [for scanning technology, such as radiation portal monitors or gamma ray scanners]?”

Sens. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and Patty Murray (D., Wash.) are co-sponsors of the GreenLane Maritime Cargo Security Act, which passed out of committee Tuesday and would authorize $835 million for port security each fiscal year through 2012.

This story first appeared in the May 3, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

It would provide for a pilot program at three foreign ports to test and establish a 100 percent integrated-screening system within one year, “so that we can learn what works, what doesn’t, the cost and the technology,” Collins said. The bill also would require 22 U.S. ports to establish procedures and technology to examine 100 percent of all U.S. containers for radiation by the end of 2007.

“The legislation we’ve introduced will not eliminate the risk of a terrorist attack,” Collins said. “I don’t think any bill could do that. But it would greatly strengthen supply chain security and build a stronger shield against terrorism without hampering trade. That is the balance we have to reach with this bill.”

The House is set to vote this on a companion bill, the SAFE Ports Act, sponsored by Reps. Jane Harmon (D., Calif.) and Dan Lungren (R., Calif.), that would for the first time establish multiyear funding for security, instead of annual allocations, providing more than $4 billion for port security over five years.

House republicans defeated a proposal by Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) last week, requiring for 100 percent inspection of all U.S.-bound shipping containers, in the House Homeland Security Committee.