Turf battles could bog down port security legislation
Now that the Senate and House have each passed port security legislation by overwhelming margins, the conventional thinking is that it shouldn’t take too much effort for the two chambers to agree on a unified bill to present to the president.
But the internal politics that last spring delayed the Senate from approving a port security bill in the wake of the Dubai Ports World controversy about potential maritime security gaps has reared its head again and could slow or scuttle a compromise bill, according to a congressional insider.
Senate leaders on Tuesday night appointed the team that will negotiate a compromise bill with House members in a conference committee. But the house has not yet appointed any conferees and time is running out to agree on a bill before Congress breaks Sept. 29 so lawmakers can campaign for the upcoming election in November.
The Senate passed the Port Security Improvement Act 98-0, which retains the provisions of the GreenLane Maritime Cargo Security Act last week, and the House passed the SAFE Port Act 421-2 in May.
While some political observers believe a compromise between the two chambers can be quickly hashed out when Congress returns for a lame duck session after the election because the proposals dealing with port security are quite similar, reaching a compromise will be more complicated because of looming disputes over jurisdiction and the scope of the bill.
Lawmakers will have to figure out a way to overcome the fact that the Senate version of the bill also includes extensive sections on rail, highway, mass transit and hazardous material security while the House version is strictly limited to port security. House members are loathe to rubber stamp Senate provisions on issues that they have not debated and voted on themselves.
Staff members from House committees have told their Senate counterparts during pre-conference meetings the last several days that congressmen are not sure what the conference can accomplish on non-port security measures, according to someone who participated in the meetings but is not authorized to talk to the press.
Committee chairmen who want to protect their power could also throw roadblocks in the way of a compromise bill, according to the source. Some chairmen may object to amendments of the bill being included in port security legislation because that would likely mean that the homeland security committees in each chamber would take the lead on oversight. Some leaders might prefer to attach sections of the bill dealing with rail or highway security in transportation or appropriations bills so their committees would have primary jurisdiction for monitoring implementation.
After the political firestorm over the acquisition of port terminal operating rights by a Dubai government subsidiary, lawmakers rushed out with measures to correct gaps in port security. But the effort stalled in the Senate over jurisdictional issues between the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Finance Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee until a compromise was reached earlier this month that led to a floor vote.
One option is for lawmakers to cut out the rest of the bill and focus on port security issues, but it is not clear if that will take place.
The port security legislation faces a “hornet’s nest” of jurisdictional issues, the congressional staff person said.
The situation could get further muddled if the Democrats are able to take control of the House in the fall election. Democratic Party leaders could try to drag their feet on a conference bill in hopes of creating a new legislation with stronger provisions and funding more to their liking in the next session of Congress.
The senators who will participate in the conference committee are:
* Susan Collins, R-Maine.
* Patty Murray, D-Wash.
* Norman Coleman, R-Minn.
* Robert Bennett, R-Utah.
* Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.
* Carl Levin, D-Mich.
* Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
* Trent Lott, R-Miss.
* Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
* Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
* Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
* Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
* Orin Hatch, R-Utah.
* Max Baucus, D-Mon.
* Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
* Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.