By JIM ABRAMS
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON- Congress neared agreement on legislation to strengthen security at U.S. ports, regarded since the Sept. 11 attacks as one of the most vulnerable targets for a catastrophic act of terrorism.
House and Senate negotiators were prepared to sign off on the bill as early as Friday, rushing it to the floor before lawmakers depart Washington at the end of the day for the election campaign.
With votes this week authorizing military tribunals for terrorists and House consideration of new rules for wiretapping, the seaport bill gives lawmakers another talking point as they try to prove their security credentials to voters.
Democratic negotiators at the ports security conference expressed concern that the final version would fail to address another significant threat _ that of terrorist attacks on the nation's rail and mass transit systems.
Pointing to rail attacks in Madrid, London and Bombay, they said they would try to restore language from the original Senate bill that authorized funding for rail and mass transit security. The United States' railways, said Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, "remain all too unprotected."
While staff members were still writing the final version of the compromise bill, it was apparent that provisions on rail and mass transit would be dropped. "It's an issue we intend to take up as soon as possible," said Republican Congressman Peter King, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. He indicated that wouldn't happen until next year.
There was tentative agreement on the ports aspect of the bill. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins, a Republican, said it would include approval of $400 million (euro315 million) a year over five years for risk-based grants for training and exercises at ports.
It would require the nation's 22 largest ports, handling 98 percent of all cargo entering the country, to install radiation detectors by the end of next year.
Pilot programs would be established at three foreign ports to test technology for nonintrusive cargo inspections. Currently only one foreign port, Hong Kong, scans all U.S.-bound cargo for nuclear materials.
The Homeland Security Department would also be required to set up protocols for resuming operations after an attack or incident. The nation's 361 ports handle some 11 million shipping containers annually and it is feared that a terrorist attack, such as a nuclear device set off by remote control, could cripple the entire economy as well as causing massive casualties.
The bill would authorize $3.4 billion (euro2.7 billion) over five years for the ports security.
Democrats in particular said that was still short of what is needed. "We inspect just 5 percent of incoming shipping containers, while 95 percent gets into our country without us knowing what's inside," said Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg.
Congress made port security a priority after a February fight over a buyout that put a Dubai company in control of some operations at six American ports. The outcry led the Dubai company, DP World, to sell the U.S. operations to an American company.
The bill is H.R. 4954
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