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Anti-Terrorism Deadlock Ends

Bowing to Bush, the House OKs an insurance bill, and tighter seaport security clears Congress.

November 15, 2002|Richard Simon and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Goaded by President Bush, Congress on Thursday broke legislative deadlocks on two major anti-terrorism bills and finally agreed to set up an independent commission to investigate government failures surrounding last year's terrorist attacks.

In a key vote sought by Bush, the House late Thursday approved a long-delayed bill to provide federal backup insurance against damage caused by terrorism. Bush and other proponents have said the bill will provide the economy a needed boost by stimulating stalled construction projects.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill within a few days.

Also approved Thursday by the House and Senate is legislation to tighten security at seaports -- facilities considered especially weak links in the nation's homeland defense.

The agreement on establishing the 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States was reached just hours before the House prepared to adjourn for the year, with Bush getting much of what he wanted. The commission was included in an intelligence bill approved on a 366-3 vote that came after midnight. The Senate is expected to give its approval, perhaps as early as today.

Action on the terrorism insurance, port security and commission measures -- along with expected Senate approval early next week on legislation to create a Department of Homeland Security -- adds to Congress' already extensive response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Members of Congress have a nightmare: on the day after an attack, having to explain why they held up terrorism insurance or a Department of Homeland Security," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Bush helped spark this legislative flurry, demonstrating his willingness to use the clout he gained in last week's midterm elections to lean on Democrats and Republicans.

On the insurance bill, Bush personally lobbied key GOP House leaders -- including powerful House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) -- who wanted to put off the issue until next year when they have more power in Congress.

And although Senate GOP leaders initially had wanted to put off action on the bill to create a Homeland Security Department, they reversed course in the face of Bush's determination and are expected within days to deliver to the president a bill written largely to his specifications. The House approved the measure on Wednesday.

The deference to Bush portends a shift in legislative dynamics in the new Congress that convenes in January. At least for the first few months, Bush may have a honeymoon period, with Republicans more willing than ever to take marching orders from the White House and Democrats less willing to take him on.

As Congress fought to quickly finish a lame-duck session that began this week, GOP leaders suffered one unexpected setback Thursday when the House killed a long-awaited bill to overhaul the bankruptcy code. But early today the measure was revived on a 244-116 vote when an abortion-related provision loathed by conservatives was removed.

Another deadlock ended in the Senate, where the Democratic-led Judiciary Committee approved two of Bush's much-delayed conservative nominees to the federal bench.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan welcomed the spate of activity. "We are encouraged by the tremendous progress Congress is making during this lame-duck session, in a very short amount of time," he said.

The terrorism insurance bill the House approved would make the government the insurer of last resort for some of the damage caused by any terrorist attacks in the next three years.

"If Congress does not pass this bill and another major terrorism attack occurs, thousands of businesses could go bankrupt, people won't be able to get coverage for their losses, and the government will have to step in at a much higher price and without an efficient payment mechanism to salvage the crisis," said Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

The insurance industry expects to be able to pay the estimated $40 billion to $50 billion in claims stemming from last year's attacks. But industry officials have said they cannot insure against the incalculable liability from a future attack without government assistance.

The Golden Gate Bridge, for example, is paying twice as much in premiums (about $1 million a year) for a fourth of the property coverage -- and no longer has any coverage for a terrorist attack. As a result, if the bridge is damaged in a terrorist attack, the taxpayers would be liable for all of the repairs.

Bush portrayed the measure as a jobs bill, saying that the lack of terrorism insurance -- or high cost of it -- after last year's attacks has stalled construction projects and idled workers.

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