Thursday, September 14, 2006

Senate OKs cargo scanning without deadline

Senate OKs cargo scanning without deadline
By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted on Wednesday to bolster security at American seaports by requiring incoming cargo to be scanned for dangerous materials as soon as technically feasible, but set no deadline for doing so.

The measure, proposed by Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, was approved 95-3 as an amendment to legislation to protect American ports five years after the September 11 attacks.

But it was denounced as "camouflage" by New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who tried and failed to get a stricter proposal passed.

Menendez' plan would have included possible sanctions such as fines against foreign ports if they did not scan U.S.-bound cargo for nuclear and other dangerous materials, once a plan is developed for doing so.

President George W. Bush's Republicans, who control the Senate, successfully argued that Menendez' idea would push other countries too far. "This will lead to retaliation by foreign ports," warned Sen. Susan Collins of Maine before the Senate voted to reject Menendez' proposal, 43-55.

The chamber is expected to vote on the underlying port security bill by the end of this week.

The bill's bipartisan sponsors had thought it would pass quickly, but the measure has been drawn into election-year feuding over which party can best plug holes in national security. Meanwhile, the shipping industry watches nervously from the sidelines.

Another Democratic amendment that would set a four-year deadline for scanning cargo while still overseas has not come to a vote. It was proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who says companies should pay for the expense of the scanning. But it is opposed by the shipping industry and has been rejected by the House of Representatives.

The Senate rejected on Wednesday a Democratic attempt to load dozens of other security measures into the ports bill, such as protecting chemical plants and implementing all the September 11 commission's recommendations.

But it approved a plan to allow the president to set up monitoring programs to track the health of emergency responders to disasters such as the September 11 attacks, which sent a huge cloud of toxic dust into the air of New York when the twin towers collapsed.

The port security legislation being debated would already require the government to finish installing radiation-screening equipment at major U.S. ports by the end of 2007 to detect "dirty bombs," devices that combine conventional explosives and radioactive material.

The measure would also launch a pilot project for cargo-scanning at three foreign ports.