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Senate proposal would check all U.S.-bound cargo

(Reuters circulated the following article on September 12.)

WASHINGTON -- All U.S.-bound cargo would have to be scanned for nuclear materials while still abroad under a proposal that Democrats urged the Senate on Tuesday to pass to protect American ports five years after the September 11 attacks.

The Senate, controlled by President George W. Bush's Republicans, is expected to vote as early as Wednesday on the proposal, rejected by the House of Representatives earlier this year and opposed by shipping and industry groups.

If the Senate passes it, the two chambers would negotiate a compromise.

The bill would already require the government to finish installing radiation-screening equipment at major U.S. ports by the end of 2007 to detect ``dirty bombs,'' devices that combine conventional explosives and radioactive material.

The measure would also launch a pilot project for cargo-scanning at three foreign ports.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, proposed an amendment that would also mandate the scanning at all foreign ports within four years. Companies shipping the goods would pay the scanning costs, which he estimated at about $8 a container.

``God forbid a nuclear weapon is shipped into this country and exploded,'' Schumer said.

UNDER ATTACK

Bill co-sponsors from both parties attacked Schumer's proposal. Companies would avoid the charge by sending their goods to Canada and from there by rail to the United States unscreened, said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state.

``We have to be sure we won't create a worse security system by imposing a fee,'' Murray told reporters.

Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens said Schumer's plan, if passed, would ``close all the ports because we cannot do it (scan all the containers) all at once.''

With both parties angling for advantage in congressional elections less than two months away, the ports bill attracted a flood of amendments on all kinds of security concerns.

The Senate accepted, on a voice vote, a Republican proposal authorizing $3.5 billion for mass transit security. ``We know from the occurrences in Great Britain, India and Spain, that our buses, subways and railways are attractive targets for terrorists,'' said sponsor Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.

The Senate also agreed to include provisions that would help further a national emergency alert system that includes wireless devices. And, the chamber lifted the ceiling on the number of U.S. employees who screen airline passengers, currently capped at 45,000.

But Republicans poured scorn on an amendment proposed by Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. It called for a wide-ranging security program including protecting chemical plants and implementation of all the September 11 commission's recommendations; Stevens warned that adding all of this to the port security bill would ``kill'' it.

Republican said a procedural objection was likely to be raised against Reid's amendment, requiring it to get 60 votes to survive. Democrats have just 44 senators, and one independent who usually votes with them.

The port security issue languished in Congress until earlier this year when lawmakers said they had security concerns about an Arab state-owned company, Dubai Ports World, which had bought operations at six major U.S. ports.

To quell the uproar, the company said it would sell the U.S. assets it had acquired.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

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