WASHINGTON -- The House overwhelmingly passed sweeping legislation yesterday aimed at shoring up vulnerabilities in the nation's seaports.
The bill passed 421-2, despite complaints from some Democrats that it failed to require overseas scanning of all incoming cargo - a disagreement that brought the only hint of partisanship to the debate.
The legislation calls for spending more than $5 billion over the next six years on port security, with about $400 million each year going to grants for individual ports. The money will be awarded by the Department of Homeland Security based on risk.
The measure also lays out a number of benchmarks for port security, including more equipment to detect containers carrying nuclear or radiological material, and standards for opening and inspecting containers that set off alarms.
Similar legislation is moving quickly in the Senate.
The Sun reported last summer that the port of Baltimore - the eighth-largest in the country - had serious security gaps, from breaks in fences to gates left unattended and camera systems that were broken or nonexistent. In August, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved nearly $6 million to help strengthen security at the port, mostly for a new surveillance system. A new fence was installed in September.
Nationally, security concerns range from unauthorized access - in one incident last year, Chinese immigrants were smuggled into the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles - to the chilling possibility of terrorists bringing a dirty bomb into a major city through a seaport.
Even as lawmakers hailed the bill as a major step toward closing yawning security gaps at seaports, the Bush administration expressed concerns about the cost of the initiatives and other aspects of the legislation.
Although President Bush said in a statement that he was "pleased" the House passed the bill, the White House budget office yesterday deemed the grant program "unnecessary" and called the legislation "overly prescriptive" for devising a system in which private shipping companies can move cargo more quickly if they share their security plans and other information. The White House also questioned whether Homeland Security officials would be able to put advanced nuclear detection equipment in place at 22 major ports as quickly as the bill requires.
Bill supporters said they are confident the agency can meet all of the requirements, adding Congress needs to be specific in its mandates because the problem is so big. "We need to refocus the same type of resources and money and attention into port security as we have into our airports," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat whose district includes the port of Baltimore. "It's a good start. It puts the issue on the table, but we have to really focus on putting the resources on the table."
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the need for greater security at American ports has often been highlighted by experts, but practical progress has been slow, and lawmakers who were pushing for tougher measures had trouble getting traction.
That changed in February, when the Bush administration signed off on the purchase of a British company with holdings in six major U.S. ports - including Baltimore's - by a firm owned by the government of Dubai. In the ensuing controversy, which thrust the issue of port security into the political spotlight, Dubai Ports World promised to sell those holdings to an American buyer.
California Rep. Dan Lungren, the chief Republican sponsor of the bill, said the flap over DP World greatly accelerated the move to tighten cargo security.
"The Dubai thing gave us exposure to an issue that had been lying dormant, and made it a national issue," he said.
Some Democrats said the bill would be stronger if it included a requirement that 100 percent of incoming containers be scanned for dangerous materials before leaving foreign ports. Efforts to add that provision in committee failed, and a last-ditch attempt yesterday to include it was narrowly defeated.
Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, called the omission a "fatal flaw in the Republican bill." But Republicans, and some Democrats, said scanning all containers would be an unrealistic goal because of the limitations of existing technology.
The Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, New York Rep. Peter T. King, said the issue is not about wanting the cargo scanned but about whether it's possible.
"We want it done tomorrow, if we can," he said.
The legislation does encourage Homeland Security officials to press ahead as quickly as possible with increasing the number of containers being scanned, and an amendment adopted yesterday calls for the agency to establish a pilot program at an overseas port that is similar to methods being used in Hong Kong. At that port, considered a model, all outgoing containers are scanned with a gamma-ray detector and a radiation monitor, which can detect dangerous materials without opening the containers.
The Senate version of the bill, which cleared a key committee this week, calls for a pilot program at three overseas ports.
The bill also would require Homeland Security to set up a plan for restarting shipping activities at ports across the country after any kind of accident or incident, and quickly set standards for sealing cargo containers that are coming into the United States. In addition, it makes permanent several test programs that the agency has been working on, including a program in which department inspectors work in foreign ports and can inspect containers flagged as high-risk before they are shipped here.
Increasing cooperation among local, state and federal officials is a major component of the bill. Ruppersberger won approval of three amendments yesterday, including one pressing Homeland Security to work with local governments and the military when setting the guidelines for getting commerce back up and running after an incident.