Wednesday, January 10, 2007

House passes Democratic security bill

House passes Democratic security bill
By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill to bolster America's security cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday as Democrats began to push their "first 100-hours" agenda that helped them win control of Congress in last year's elections.

On a largely party-line vote of 299-128, the House agreed to implement long-stalled recommendations by the 9/11 commission, which investigated the 2001 attacks on the United States. The bill, the first passed by the House since the 110th Congress convened last Thursday, was sent to the Senate for consideration.

While much of the effort has broad support, House Democrats drew objections from the Bush administration and others to some of their own proposals in the bill, particularly one that would require within a few years 100 percent screening of cargo for explosives on passenger jets and incoming ships.

Critics said there is no proven technology for such screening, at least not in a timely fashion, and could create bottlenecks in global trade.

Former Rep. Timothy Roemer, an Indiana Democrat who served on the commission, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that the effort could be counterproductive.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg scoffed to reporters after testifying before the panel, "I think the question is which decade do they want to start that."

But former Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who served as vice chair of the bipartisan commission, praised the sweeping legislation.

"If this bill ... is enacted, funded and implemented, then the American people will be safer," Hamilton said on Monday.

The White House raised objections in a statement but did not threaten a veto. It said: "The administration looks forward to working with Congress to try to address these concerns."

The measure would provide better communications equipment for emergency workers, more money for high-risk areas, strengthen the sharing of U.S. intelligence information with local authorities and seek to reduce radicalism with efforts overseas to promote development and education.

The House also approved a resolution to create an intelligence oversight panel, in line with the commission's call for greater congressional oversight.

The previous Congress, controlled by U.S. President George W. Bush's Republicans, had enacted about half the commission's recommendations, including creation of a director to oversee all U.S. intelligence agencies.

But it allowed others to languish more than two years, drawing fire from the commission as well as Democrats who made it a campaign issue.

"We are here today considering this bill for one reason -- to protect America from terrorism and from those who advocate hate and violence," said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat.

Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, charged, "This is primarily a political gesture without a great deal of results."

During the next two weeks, Democrats intend to vote on the five other bills in their "first 100 legislative hours" agenda.

It includes measures to increase the minimum wage, overturn Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, lower prescription drug prices, cut the interest rate on student loans and end some subsidies for big oil companies.

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan)