WASHINGTON -- With the families of Sept. 11 victims looking on, the House overwhelmingly voted last night to enact several languishing recommendations of the 9/11 commission.
The legislation, symbolically labeled HR1, was the first to be passed by the new, Democratic-controlled Congress.
Lawmakers voted 299-128 to require screening of all cargo on passenger planes within three years, to check cargo ships for nuclear bombs before they leave ports bound for the United States and to boost homeland security funding for urban areas most likely to be terrorist targets.
"Here's a chance for Congress to stop dragging its feet and become the do-something Congress," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who is the new chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "We can stand around pointing fingers or we can do the job we were hired to do."
Implicit in the Democrats' message - a staple of the 2006 campaign trail - was criticism of their Republican counterparts for failing to pass many of the commission's recommendations in the past several years.
But Republicans rejected that notion emphatically, insisting that they passed 39 out of the 41 recommendations of the commission, even if they originally opposed the panel's creation.
"We passed very significant legislation in the last Congress," said Rep. Peter T. King of New York, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee.
Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, said Democrats were in a bind because they had campaigned on implementing the recommendations of the commission. "And now you have to at least appear to make good on that promise even though it doesn't make any sense," she charged.
King and other GOP lawmakers complained that Democrats had shut Republicans out of the process for writing the legislation.
"This should not be a partisan issue," he said. "Terrorists don't care if we're Republicans, Democrats, independents - if we're Americans, they want to kill us."
Not all Republicans were willing to oppose the legislation, with 68 joining the Democrats to pass it.
Democrats pointed out that members of the commission gave Congress grades of C, D and F for its response to their recommendations. And they pointed out that the commission's two chairmen - former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, and former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a Republican - had praised the new legislation.
On CNN yesterday, John F. Lehman Jr., a 9/11 commissioner and former Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan, offered enthusiastic words as well, saying, "This is a terrific development because it's not just posturing."
Still, the legislation failed to substantially overhaul Congress' own oversight of the intelligence community, experts said.
The commission called that oversight "dysfunctional," and recommended joint House-Senate oversight with authorizing and appropriations committees combined to oversee intelligence matters. The commission also called for an end to term limits for lawmakers serving on the intelligence committees.
"All of these steps are important and the Congress hasn't done any of them," said Melvin Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a former CIA analyst.
The reason, he said, has to do with power.
"If they centralized into one committee, the individual House and Senate committees would lose power, and if they centralized authorizing and appropriating committees they would have to give up some power, and they just never do that even when it's clear that the security of the country demands that," Goodman said.
Even so, lawmakers and family advocates for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks congratulated one another for finally doing what they said should have been done long ago.
"The 9/11 commission gave us a blueprint for security, and they didn't expect it to gather dust," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat from New York.
The anti-terrorism measure is the first in a series of major bills that the House is expected to pass this week and next. The list - all part of the Democrats' campaign platform - includes an increase in the minimum wage, the expansion of federally funded embryonic stem cell research and permission for the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices for senior citizens.
The Senate is moving at a slower pace, considering changes to Congress' ethics rules.
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.