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Senate OKs Port Security Measure

September 15, 2006|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted unanimously Thursday to tighten security at U.S. seaports by scanning nearly all incoming cargo for nuclear weapons or "dirty bombs."

The bill, approved 98 to 0 in a preelection push on national defense, would increase safeguards on the rail systems that pick up cargo from ports and authorize 1,000 new agents to screen containers coming off ships.

But the legislation does not go as far as some Democrats sought in requiring inspections for all U.S.-bound cargo before it leaves foreign ports. Almost 11 million containers are shipped annually to the United States.

The plan, which authorizes spending $835 million next year, "works toward a goal of getting to 100% screening" of cargo leaving foreign ports, said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), one of the bill's authors.

The bill includes elements not covered in a House plan passed in May.

Still, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was optimistic that a compromise plan would pass before the end of the year.

President Bush said in a statement that the Senate bill would strengthen his administration's efforts "to secure our ports and detect dangers before they reach America's shores."

The bill requires inspections of suspicious high-risk cargo at foreign ports. It also sets up a pilot program to scan for nuclear or "dirty bomb" materials in all U.S.-bound containers at three to-be-determined foreign ports. The trial would help determine whether mandatory inspections would bottle up commerce and drive up costs, as Republicans fear.

The administration has spent about $10 billion on port security since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. About 65% of cargo is already screened for nuclear or radiological materials. The Homeland Security Department aims to increase that number to 80% by the end of the year and to almost 100% by the end of 2007.

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