The House of Representatives overwhelmingly Thursday approved legislation aimed at strengthening security at U.S. ports. House action brought some emotional debate over the government's handling and funding of port security.
The legislation contains measures to accelerate development of new scanning technology, and speed up deployment of detection equipment at all ports.
Under the bill approved by a vote of 421 to 2, the Department of Homeland Security would have to put in place a sufficient number of radiation monitors to scan 98 percent of cargo coming into U.S. ports by the end of the 2007 fiscal year.
It also directs that workers at U.S. ports having access to secure areas undergo security checks to determine if they are either illegal immigrants or on the government's terrorist watch list.
Although the bill was the product of bipartisan cooperation between majority Republicans and opposition Democrats, there was a significant amount of partisan disagreement over cargo inspections.
Democrats pushed for a provision directing that all cargo be inspected at foreign ports before shipment to the U.S. Republicans called that unreasonable.
New York Congressman Peter King, who heads the House Homeland Security Committee, responded to Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey's assertion that Republicans opposed stronger measures against possible terrorist attacks.
KING: "I came from a district which lost more than 150 friends, neighbors and constituents on September 11th. Unlike Mr. Markey I don't need visual aids to remind me of what happened on September 11th."
MARKEY: "Will the gentleman yield?"
KING: "No, I will not yield, I will not yield, I do not interrupt you!"
MARKEY: "There were Bostonians on that plane!"
Democrats continue to cite the statistic that only between five and six percent of all cargo containers bound for the U.S. undergo physical inspection.
Republicans and government officials counter that 100 percent of those containers specifically identified by U.S. customs officials as posing a security risk are inspected.
House Majority Leader John Boehner:
"To have 100 percent screening of every container is not at all practical and will in fact shut down our ports and undermine the strong economy that we have today," said John Boehner.
Homeland Security officials have told Congress they will be able to meet an end-of-2007 deadline for scanning 98 percent of cargo for nuclear weapons or so-called "dirty" radiological bombs.
But a statement from the White House questioned the feasibility of the goals set in the House bill and a similar Senate measure for installing detectors.
A similar port security measure was approved earlier this month by the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Bills from the two chambers would have to be reconciled and signed by the president to become law.