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House Allocates $5.5 Billion for Port Security

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Across the Capitol, the spending at issue today was a $5.5 billion to improve security at U.S. seaports. Not long ago the ports were an orphan in the plans to fight terrorism, but then an Arab-owned firm, Dubai Ports World, said it would buy operating rights at six U.S. ports. The outcry caused Congress to swing into action. One result was the Port Security Bill the House passed today on a bipartisan vote. Some called it a legislative miracle. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

You almost never see this: 421 members of the House voted together to pass this bill. Just two voted against it and even they were bipartisan, one Democrat, one Republican. What extraterrestrial force could possibly bring such polarized partisans together in an election year? Perhaps it was the overwhelming response from American voters, reacting to the Dubai Ports World storm and the realization that only about five percent of the containers entering the U.S. gets inspected. California's Loretta Sanchez said today's bill tried to address two questions.

Representative LORETTA SANCHEZ (California, Democrat): One, who has access to our ports? And two, what's in the box, what's in the container?

SEABROOK: As to the former, this bill would require port workers to display standard ID cards by the end of 2008. But by far, the larger part of today's debate was about the second question, what's in the box? The bill would set standards for containers sealed, create protocols for inspecting empty containers, and require the Department of Homeland Security to install radiation detectors at major U.S. ports by the end of next year.

But as for that five percent container inspection rate, the bill does little. Instead it sets up a program for companies to self-register the contents of containers, something Oregon Democratic, Peter DeFazio called ridiculous.

Representative PETER DEFAZIO (Oregon, Democrat): It's an honor system. You fill out an online form and your containers automatically are ranked less of a threat. Now, some time, one to three years later, the U.S. might send an inspector by with prior notice one day to look at your factory. That day you shoo all the al-Qaida people out and say, don't come in tomorrow, the U.S. is sending a guy by for one day.

SEABROOK: DeFazio and others railed against Republican leaders for not even allowing a debate on an amendment that would have pushed ports towards a 100 percent inspection rate. But New York Republican Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and sponsor of this bill, said total inspection is just not physically possible right now, and to vote for massive inspections would be merely symbolic.

Representative PETER KING (New York, Republican): We're not looking for soundbites, we're not looking for headlines, we're not looking for the evening news, we're not looking for the tabloids. We are looking to get results and to save American lives and to make America safer.

SEABROOK: Another thing making 100 percent inspections impractical, said Georgia Republican John Linder, is the current generation of scanning equipment. The technology and use now for detecting radiation, Lender says, also detects bananas and kitty litter.

Representative JOHN LINDER (Georgia, Republican): The key to next generation systems is the likelihood that they will produce lower false alarm rates, thus minimizing disruptions to port operations. Rather than disrupting the flow of commerce to pull up on the container of kitty litter, we ought to have the new technology and we have to be patient for it to be here.

SEABROOK: None of the speakers today even contemplated the disruption to be caused by an interrupted flow of kitty litter. But kidding aside, lawmakers did require the Department of Homeland Security to help develop new technology so that ports can begin scanning more containers. Even with these arguments, California Democrat Jane Harman called this, the best day of this session of Congress so far.

Representative JANE HARMAN (California, Democrat): Within months, just maybe we will accomplish what I would call a legislative miracle in this session of Congress which has only met 27 days since the beginning of the year.

SEABROOK: A last partisan swipe that failed to mar a stunning day of bipartisanship in the House of Representatives.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Seabrook
Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.