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House member puts rail security at top of his panel’s agenda

(The following article by Chris Strohm of CongressDaily was posted on GovExec.com on January 30.)

WASHINGTON -- House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson Monday laid out a sweeping agenda for the coming months, saying the first big piece of legislation his panel will tackle will be focused on beefing up security on passenger and freight rail systems.

Thompson said the legislation his committee will produce would establish federal standards and oversight for both passenger rail mass transit systems and freight rail systems, especially those that transport hazardous materials.

“We’re going to bring the federal government into it to provide the necessary direction,” Thompson told reporters. “We absolutely need to move toward having the federal government coming up with some uniform approaches for rail security.”

He stopped short of saying what kind of mandates the federal government might establish for rail systems, such as a required screening of passengers. But he said the federal government needs to have a stronger presence within rail systems, meaning more personnel, cameras and K-9 units. He said his committee will likely produce legislation within the next six weeks.

Thompson said he also wants to “revisit” authority given to the Homeland Security Department last year to build 700 miles of new fencing and barriers along the Southern border. He said a comprehensive plan for border security is needed, including a guestworker program that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country to legally stay and work. He said the federal government should not specify one solution for border security.

“At this point a fence, as I see it, without having a plan is a piecemeal approach to border security,” he said. He added: “There’s no way that I’m going to support a program that would call for sending people back across the border.”

Thompson also said his panel needs to investigate the Coast Guard’s Deepwater program for modernizing its fleet. Government investigators have already cited problems with the Coast Guard’s plan to procure a new national security cutter. Thompson said other projects under Deepwater should be “put on hold” until further investigation is conducted to determine if more problems exist.

In addition, Thompson said he hopes the Senate will pass legislation that requires the Homeland Security Department to scan all cargo at foreign ports before they are loaded onto ships destined for the United States.

A bill passed by the House earlier this month would require the department to ensure that all sea cargo is scanned at foreign ports within five years. But it is not clear if the Senate will support such a mandate.

“We are, on a daily basis, trying to resolve the challenges presented by the Senate,” Thompson said. “Some are of the opinion that a timetable is not the way to go. We believe that if we do not provide a timetable it will never happen.”

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

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