WASHINGTON, May 4 (Reuters) The US House of Representatives today voted overwhelmingly to bolster security at US ports, spurred by the recent uproar over a failed plan for a Dubai company to manage several US port terminals.
The bipartisan bill, approved by 421-2 and backed by the White House, authorizes 5.5 billion dollars for port security. It requires the government to finish installing radiation screening equipment at major U.S. ports by the end of 2007.
The measure, sponsored by Republican Dan Lungren and Democrat Jane Harman, both of California, would let the United States reject cargo from countries that refused to cooperate with beefed-up security checks abroad.
It also includes a plan for a cargo-screening pilot project at a foreign port to check containers for dangerous shipments.
But it did not include stringent deadlines for overseas screening sought by minority Democrats. ''Bringing a nuclear weapon into the United States is their (al Qaeda's) highest goal,'' said Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey.
Only a fraction of the millions of cargo containers that enter US ports each year are inspected. That has prompted warnings that sea cargo is a serious security vulnerability over four years after the September 11 attacks.
A Senate panel has approved a bill taking the additional step of requiring all US-bound cargo to be screened overseas or be turned away from US ports, but left unclear when the measure would start being enforced.
Both chambers must iron out differences and pass the same bill for it to become law. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, New York's Peter King, said the differences were ''bridgeable'' and a law should be passed this summer.
A new focus on port security emerged on Capitol Hill after lawmakers in both parties revolted against the Bush administration's decision earlier this year to let a state- owned Dubai company take over management of terminal operations at several key US ports. The company, Dubai Ports World, ended the uproar by saying it would sell the US assets.
POSSIBLE ELECTION ISSUE Democrats have seized on the furor, hoping to make port security an issue in congressional elections this fall.
Republicans, who as the majority party set the agenda in both chambers, moved port security higher on their agenda.
''Clearly with Dubai Ports World, if there was a silver lining, it was able to crystallize Congress' attention and bring real port security to the forefront,'' said Rep. Vito Fossella, a New York Republican.
Markey sought to require 100 percent screening of U.S.-bound containers for dangerous materials at ports abroad within five years. House Republicans rejected imposing a deadline as unfeasible and a ''false promise''.
The shipping industry warned Markey's plan would disrupt commerce. The World Shipping Council said it would undermine a program called the Container Security Initiative in which other governments are inspecting containers thought to pose a risk.
Republicans said they resented comments by Markey and some other Democrats they were lax on security. ''It's wrong when people on the other side say Republicans are not trying to stop a nuclear attack,'' King said.
Ironically, the Dubai company had sought unsuccessfully to get lawmakers to accept its proposed deal by offering to do radiation screening at dozens of ports it operates globally.
Reuters VJ VP0312