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Congress nears approval on ports security, rail provisions may be dropped

(The Associated Press circulated the following article on September 29.)

WASHINGTON -- Congress hopes to add passage of a far-reaching ports security bill to other security-related legislation as lawmakers head home for an election campaign where candidates will vie to show voters their anti-terrorist resolve.

House and Senate negotiators said late Thursday they had reached tentative agreement on the legislation, which outlines steps to protect the nation's 361 ports from what could be catastrophic attacks from chemical, biological or nuclear devices.

The bill could be rushed to the House and Senate floor late Friday before the two chambers recess until after the Nov. 7 elections.

The bill, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, ''will make a real difference to the security of our country.''

Democrats, while lauding the measures taken in the bill, said it didn't go far enough, stressing that the nation wouldn't be safe until all 11 million cargo containers that enter the nation every year are inspected. All containers should be inspected as they are loaded at overseas ports, said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. ''By the time they reach American ports it is too late.''

Democrats were also upset that the final version apparently would drop provisions in the original Senate bill that approved $4.5 billion for rail and mass transit security. They pointed to terrorist attacks on rail systems in London, Madrid, Spain, and Bombay, India, as evidence of the vulnerability of American railways.

''It's an issue we intend to take up as soon as possible,'' said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. He indicated that wouldn't happen until next year.

Republican leaders also have sought to showcase their security credentials before the election by finishing work on legislation to approve military tribunals for prosecuting terrorists. The House on Thursday also passed legislation to authorize the administration's wiretapping program for terrorist suspects while the Senate was working this week on legislation to build 700 miles of fencing along the Mexican border.

Collins said the ports security bill would include approval of $400 million a year over five years for risk-based grants for training and exercises at ports.

It would require the nation's 22 largest ports, which handle 98 percent of all cargo entering the country, to install radiation detectors by the end of next year.

Pilot programs would be established at three foreign ports to test technology for nonintrusive cargo inspections. Currently only one foreign port, Hong Kong, scans all U.S.-bound cargo for nuclear materials.

The Homeland Security Department would be required to set up protocols for resuming operations after an attack or incident. It is feared that a terrorist attack, such as a nuclear device set off by remote control, could cripple the entire economy as well as causing massive casualties.

The bill would authorize $3.4 billion over five years for the ports security.

Democrats in particular said that was still short of what was needed. ''We inspect just 5 percent of incoming shipping containers, while 95 percent gets into our country without us knowing what's inside,'' said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

Congress made port security a priority after a February fight over a buyout that put a Dubai company in control of some operations at six American ports. The outcry led the Dubai company, DP World, to sell the U.S. operations to an American company.

Friday, September 29, 2006

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