May 2, 2006

Senate panel votes to screen inbound sea cargo

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - All U.S.-bound cargo would have to
be screened overseas for dangerous materials or be turned away
from American ports under a bill approved on Tuesday by the
Senate Homeland Security Committee.

The panel did not set a date for starting the initiative,
which was sponsored by Democrats and included in legislation to
beef up U.S. port security.

Congressional Democrats seized on the port security issue
after the Bush administration ran into a storm of controversy
for approving a state-owned Dubai company's plan to manage some
terminals at six U.S. ports. That plan has since been dropped.

But Senate staffers said the proposal approved on Tuesday
was watered down before the vote, and dropped a deadline for
overseas screening to begin. The shipping industry has warned
that international commerce could be disrupted and trading
partners upset by U.S. screening ultimatums.

Still, the Senate panel's vote would send a message to
other countries that "ultimately we have the authority to stop
cargo coming in" if measures are not taken to improve security,
said Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

"That's a pretty strong message," he said.

Only a small fraction of cargo containers entering U.S.
ports are screened. Some lawmakers and security experts say sea
cargo is one of the nation's most serious vulnerabilities more
than four years after the September 11 attacks.

The Senate bill's provision to screen all inbound cargo as
soon as "possible and practicable" was offered by New Jersey
Democrat Frank Lautenberg.

In the House of Representatives, which is working on
similar legislation, a committee last week refused to include a
plan requiring overseas checks of U.S. bound cargo within three
to five years.

But Democrats vowed to try to tack that proposal onto the
House bill when it comes to the floor later this week.

It was uncertain when the Senate bill would go to that
chamber's floor. Both chambers will have to reconcile
differences and pass the same bill for it to become law.

The legislation approved by the Senate panel includes a
plan for cargo screening pilot projects at three foreign ports
-- to be named by the government -- to check containers for
dangerous shipments, including radioactive materials.

The measure would also provide $835 million a year for port
security over each of the next six years, Senate aides said.