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Congress Responds to Terrorism Attacks - 2001-12-27

The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon spurred the U.S. Congress to pass a series of measures aimed at tightening U.S. security and cracking down on terrorism.

With unusual speed and unity, the Republican-led House of Representatives and the Democratic-led Senate passed a resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against those believed responsible for the September 11 attacks.

Within days, both chambers gave their approval to Mr. Bush to conduct a military campaign against the al-Qaeda terrorist network and its leader, Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the attacks.

"We must grant the president the fullest authority to employ all the resources of the United States, to make war on our enemies, to destroy their ability to harm us and to defend our beloved country," said Republican Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois and Chairman of the House International Relations Committee. The House and Senate also worked quickly and across party lines to send Mr. Bush a $40 billion emergency spending measure for disaster recovery and anti-terrorism efforts.

"We must, in one voice, work to reassure the American people that they are safe in our streets, in the air, and in all the buildings, no matter where they live or what they do," said Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the top Democrat in the House. "This Congress, in a nonpartisan way will work as hard as humanly possible to make sure that our people have the safety they demand, they deserve and that terror is defeated completely and finally."

After winning Congressional support for the emergency spending package, the Bush administration asked lawmakers for broader law enforcement authority to crack down on terrorists.

That was an issue, however, that began to splinter the bipartisanship that had marked Congressional action in the days and weeks immediately after September 11.

The legislation called for giving law enforcement greater powers to wiretap suspected terrorists, share intelligence about them, and prosecute those who knowingly harbor terrorists. During weeks of often heated debate on the measure, an unlikely alliance of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats came together to express concern that expanded powers could be abused in the future.

A compromise was eventually reached, calling for many of the wiretap provisions to expire in four years.

"We wanted a bill that said, we are going to be a safer nation, we are going to be a more secure nation, we are going to be a nation protecting its liberties," Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "We have done that."

But House and Senate passage of the so-called Patriot Act did not end partisan debate on other legislative measures stemming from the September 11 hijacking attacks.

A measure aimed at boosting aviation security became bogged down in a dispute over whether baggage inspectors at airports should be federal employees or remain private contractors. Many Democrats supported the idea of federal inspectors. But many Republicans were opposed to creating what they viewed as another federal bureaucracy.

Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas forged a compromise that called for federalizing baggage screeners, but allowing airports the option of returning to private screening firms after three years.

"We are going to beat the terrorists," he said. "We are going to secure the people of our country, so that we can travel in freedom."

The compromise cleared the way for House and Senate passage. Mr. Bush last month signed the legislation, which also calls for more armed air marshals on flights and reinforcing cockpit doors.

The fight against terrorism and bolstering security at home are expected to dominate the legislative agenda again next year.

Bush administration officials have indicated they plan to ask Congress for more money to prevent bioterrorism, expand aviation security and strengthen the role of the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001