Port security bill advances in Senate

A far-reaching port security bill that could eventually lead to screening of all cargo containers headed to the United States was approved by the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday.

The measure would also increase funding for port security by more than 300 percent, create a new federal maritime security agency within the Department of Homeland Security and streamline the movement of cargo for importers that agree to abide by tougher security procedures.

The committee action came just weeks after the collapse of a controversial port deal involving a Dubai company that focused renewed attention on the security of overseas cargo headed to the United States.

In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the 9/11 Commission concluded that even as commercial aviation remained a possible target, the risk of maritime terrorism might be greater.

The commission, along with other government agencies, has warned about the possibility of terrorists using cargo containers to smuggle weapons of mass destruction _ including nuclear dirty bombs _ into the United States. They have also warned about the deadly contamination that would result if terrorists exploded a dirty bomb shipped to an urban port.

“It’s what keeps me up at night,” said bill sponsor Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., of the terrorist threat to the nation’s ports.

Murray, who has been working on port security issues since 9/11 and has been highly critical of the administration’s efforts, introduced her bill last November. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee.

The committee approved the measure on a 14-2 vote. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, voted against the bill because he thought the Senate Commerce Committee, which he chairs, should have had jurisdiction. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., also voted against it, saying he thought it would duplicate programs already in place.

Murray, who is not a member of the committee but attended the mark-up, said her goal was to have the bill on the president’s desk by the end of the year. Similar legislation will be considered by the full House on Thursday.