Bill Offers Mix of Security Provisions

A Senate committee endorses a bill to implement some recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. It includes efforts to improve communications for first responders and to expand a visa-waiver program. But it's notable for what it doesn't propose.

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Congress is making one of the agonizing decisions of the post-9/11 world. It's deciding where to spend money to prepare for attack when every part of the country fears an attack. A plan now up for debate provides money to improve communication for first responders. It may also affect how much federal money your state gets, and on that issue one high-minded proposal may not be followed.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Democrats made completing the work of the 9/11 Commission a top priority when they took control of Congress this year. In fact, it was the first bill passed by the House. But neither the House bill nor the Senate bill includes one of the Commission's main proposals, that all Homeland Security funding go to areas that face the greatest risk of attack. Instead, both bills guarantee that every state gets some money, although not as much as today.

Illinois Democrat Barack Obama tried to get the Senate Homeland Security Committee to change that.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I know this is a difficult issue because it affects money to our home states, and part of our job is to look out for our states. I recognize that, but I think this is one of those issues that transcends state boundaries.

FESSLER: He proposed that the Senate adopt the House formula, which would target more money to areas such as New York and L.A. But Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said even small states need some protection from terrorists.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): They may strike anywhere. You know, we live in fear, I do, that there will be simultaneous strikes on similar facilities and places all around America - shopping malls, movie theaters.

FESSLER: The Obama amendment was rejected, setting up a confrontation with the House. The House bill also would require the overseas screening of all cargo containers headed for U.S. ports. The Senate bill doesn't. The provision is opposed by the shipping industry and the administration as impractical, and senators have said they want to first see the outcome of a pilot project.

The committee did agree to expand a program that allows individuals from 27 nations such as Britain and France to visit the United States without a visa. The United States has been under pressure from other allies such as Poland and Greece to be included in the program.

Ohio Republican George Voinovich called the current system a slap in the face.

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): All these countries, these new NATO, EU members, Poland, others, have just said, you know, we're your friends, we want to work with you, and we're shut out of this program under the current situation.

FESSLER: In exchange for joining, visa-waiver nations would face stricter requirements for reporting stolen passports and sharing airline passenger information with the United States.

Overall, the House and Senate bills include a hodgepodge of proposals. They both would create a new grant program to improve communications equipment for first responders. They also would give collective bargaining rights to airport screeners, who complain that they lack the protections given other government employees.

Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn complained that that wasn't one of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations. Holding up the Commission's report, he said he had a problem with a lot of things in the bill.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): If you go through and look in this book trying to find out what we're doing, 99 percent of it doesn't have anything to do with what this book's recommendations are.

FESSLER: In fact, many of the Commission's recommendations were vague. On one thing, though, the Commission was extremely clear, that Congress should reorganize itself so there aren't so many different committees overseeing homeland security. The Homeland Security Committee approved a non-binding resolution calling on the Senate to change that, but Coburn stated the obvious. It's highly unlikely that any other committee will relinquish power.

Sen. COBURN: I have no hopes that it will happen, because individual interests will preclude national interests, and Congress will stay dysfunctional.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Unfortunately, I think in this case your predictions are accurate.

FESSLER: Chairman Lieberman said he expects the Senate to take up this issue and the rest of the bill in the next few weeks.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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