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Congress OKs Port Security Bill

The legislation sent to the president authorizes millions to shore up defenses at ports such as the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex.

September 30, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congress early this morning approved and sent to President Bush a bill aimed at shoring up anti-terrorism defenses at U.S. ports.

The port security measure, which would bring millions of federal dollars to the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex and other harbors, became a GOP priority after a political flap earlier this year over a Dubai company's ill-fated attempt to manage facilities at several U.S. ports.

The measure, which Bush is expected to sign, authorizes $400 million a year in federal grants to ports for the next five years, requires minimum security standards for the nearly 11 million cargo containers that enter U.S. ports each year and establishes a pilot program at three foreign ports to scan all U.S.-bound cargo.

It also sets up security training for waterfront workers and mandates radiation detectors at major ports by the end of next year. And it establishes deadlines for special identification cards to be issued to port workers after background checks.

The measure was approved by the Senate on a voice vote; the House approved it 409-2 early today.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who along with Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) sponsored the House version of the legislation, said, "In a month that was supposed to be all about security, this measure is the only one we've considered that will actually make America more secure."

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, called the bill "a major leap ahead in our efforts to strengthen our national security."

The measure was voted on in the final, hectic hours of the pre-election session, in which several security-related bills were sent to the president. The GOP is hoping to showcase its national security credentials before the November election.

As one of the last major bill moving through Congress before the election, it became a magnet for other Republican priorities, including a measure cracking down on online gambling that is a part of the party's election-year "values" agenda.

The port security bill is the only major legislation to emerge from the Dubai controversy, which triggered a debate about the vulnerability of ports. Another high-profile bill -- one that would have subjected foreign investment in the U.S. to greater scrutiny -- stalled because of a dispute between House and Senate Republicans.

Dubai Ports World's attempted takeover of some U.S. port facilities caused an embarrassing rift between Bush and congressional Republicans and gave Democrats an opportunity to attack the GOP as weak on national security. After the uproar, the Dubai company backed down from taking over the facilities.

Months after the brouhaha, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, locked in a tough campaign, is running a TV ad showing himself at the Port of Newark and declaring, "Five years after 9/11, President Bush just doesn't get it."

Democrats unsuccessfully sought to include in the bill a requirement for the screening of every cargo container. But business groups protested to Republicans that such a step would slow commerce and harm the U.S. economy.

Democrats also assailed Republicans for stripping funding for rail and transit security from the bill.

Separately, Congress approved the annual homeland security spending bill that would provide additional money for port security measures, including stationing more inspectors at foreign ports to check U.S.-bound cargo. It includes $210 million in port security grants, up from about $175 million this year.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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