Saturday, September 30, 2006

Internet gambling ban added to U.S. port security bill

Internet gambling ban added to U.S. port security bill
By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress was pushing on Friday to finish legislation that would boost security at U.S. ports, but at the last minute lawmakers added provisions to prohibit Internet gambling.

Rushing to finish their work by the weekend to go home and campaign for elections in which control of Congress is at stake, lawmakers were linking up unrelated measures in an effort to get them approved.

The House passed an Internet gambling ban earlier this summer, but the bill had difficulty moving in the Senate. However it was a priority of Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, and attaching it to the popular port security bill appeared aimed at insuring its passage.

Votes were expected by midnight Friday in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Port security advanced as an issue in Congress this year after an outcry over the Bush administration's decision to allow an Arab company, Dubai Ports World, to buy major U.S. port assets.

House and Senate negotiators agreed late on Thursday on the outlines of the port security legislation. It would authorize $3.4 billion over five years for actions such as installing radiation detectors at the largest U.S. ports.

There were attempts on Friday to add other unrelated amendments, but apart from the Internet gambling provisions, the others were rejected, a top House leadership aide said.

Those rejected included an attempt to shield telephone companies from liability for privacy violations if they supply the U.S. government with access to customer records. This idea came from Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens, Republican sources said.

"Our bill is slimming down and I'm very pleased with the port security portions," said Rep. Dan Lungren, a California Republican and one of the key negotiators on the legislation.

Another proposed add-on that was rejected would have tightened security at courthouses and stiffened penalties for attacks on judges.

Language that would have added billions more for rail and mass transit security had been stripped out of the port security bill earlier, lawmakers and their aides said. So was language to lift a cap on federal airport security screeners.

The heart of the port security bill deals with cargo container security. Only a fraction of the millions of containers that enter U.S. ports each year are inspected. That has prompted warnings that sea cargo remains a serious security risk, five years after the September 11 attacks.

The issue languished in Congress until earlier this year when lawmakers said they had security concerns Dubai Ports World's acquisitions at six major U.S. ports. To quell the uproar, the company said it would sell the port assets.

The ports bill requires the government to finish installing radiation-screening equipment at 22 major U.S. ports, which handle 98 percent of all containers, by the end of 2007.

It also sets up a pilot program at three foreign ports to test the feasibility of scanning cargo headed for the United States while it is still overseas.

But another bill that was inspired by the Dubai furor -- proposed tightening of the rules governing approval of foreign takeovers -- has stalled in Congress. The two chambers passed competing versions and have not reached a compromise.