WASHINGTON -- More than two months after the Dubai Ports World deal drew attention to vulnerabilities at America's seaports, Congress is preparing to take action on legislation aimed at improving port security.
A measure that would spend about $800 million per year on security measures could be on President Bush's desk by the end of the summer, supporters said. But partisan disagreements over the best approach - and how much to spend - have added an election-year element to what had been a largely bipartisan effort to close port security gaps.
A House committee will begin deliberations this morning on port security legislation, paving the way for debate in the full House by later this spring or early summer. A related measure is expected to get action in the Senate before Memorial Day.
As Congress prepared to take up the issue, the Bush administration announced yesterday that it was ordering background checks on an estimated 400,000 port workers to guard against any potential terrorist threat, part of a long-delayed effort to create a sophisticated and standardized identification card for seaport employees.
Democrats criticized the timing of the announcement, which they called long overdue, as they renewed their efforts to secure more money for ports.
Democrats also want the administration to devise a plan for examining every cargo container that comes into the country. Currently, only about 5 percent to 10 percent of seaborne cargo is inspected.
"Republicans keep saying it would cost too much; it would take too long, it would be too inconvenient," said Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, who plans to stage a showdown over the proposal during today's committee meeting. "The truth is, we can't afford not to do it."
Another Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, wants to add a port security proposal to a stopgap spending measure for the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina recovery being considered by the Senate this week. The Democrat's proposal would require the Department of Homeland Security to submit a plan to Congress laying out how the agency plans to achieve the 100 percent inspection benchmark within a few years.
"Two months ago, in the midst of the Dubai Ports World deal, everyone in Congress professed their strong support for securing our ports," Menendez said. "This week, the Republican-controlled Congress will have the chance to put their money where their mouths are by passing this amendment."
In an effort to ratchet up the pressure on Republicans, a liberal advocacy group, Americans United, says it is running TV ads this week in the home districts of several members of the House homeland security panel that criticize President Bush and Republicans in Congress for their handling of port security.
Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, said the House measure offers a plan that would make ports safer by using existing technology and does not impose requirements that aren't achievable now.
"I believe our legislation provides the level of security that's necessary," King said during a press conference at which DHS officials showed off new radiation monitors bound for U.S. ports. "One thing we're not going to do is just pass legislation that sounds good or looks good."
King said he hoped that the cooperation that has marked work on the House measure - its main sponsors are two Californians, Republican Rep. Dan Lungren and Democratic Rep. Jane Harman - would not break down.
"That would undo so much of the good that's been done," he said.
The effort to secure America's seaports took on fresh urgency earlier this year, when a Dubai-owned company's plan to acquire some operations at six major ports - including Baltimore's - sparked an uproar. In early March, after more than three weeks of debate over whether a firm owned by a foreign government should be allowed to buy into U.S. ports, Dubai Ports World said it would sell the American holdings involved in its acquisition of Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co.
DP World has not yet announced a buyer.
The controversy, however, highlighted security gaps at ports, and lawmakers lined up to outline proposals for fixing the problem. Progress has been slowed by the fact that Congress has spent three weeks in recess since the middle of March, but Lungren said he had been assured by House leaders that the legislation would be brought to the floor "in short order" after it clears the homeland security panel.
In arguing for all containers to be inspected before reaching U.S. ports, Democrats point to a test program in Hong Kong, where all containers are screened with a gamma-ray detector and radiation monitor before leaving the port. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, visited Hong Kong recently and said that city's success "should put us to shame."
DHS officials have said they are looking at Hong Kong's program, and King said he would like to see a similar system in the United States. But, he added, the point of the current legislation is to produce something that works today, while making it clear to the Bush administration that new technology is hugely important.
"There's no sense putting something in the bill if it's not realistic," King said. "We want a real bill, not a headline."
Markey, though, said that Republicans said the same thing about aviation security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - that screening every piece of luggage was too difficult, too expensive and would cause massive delays.