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Lawmakers Reach Deal On National Security Legislation

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Congressional negotiators reached tentative agreement Tuesday on steps to strengthen air and sea defenses against terrorists in legislation aimed at fulfilling recommendations made three years ago by the 9/11 Commission.

The bill outlines plans to inspect all cargo on passenger planes within three years and screen, within five years, all U.S.-bound cargo ships for nuclear weapons before they leave foreign ports.

It also realigns the formulas for distributing federal security funds so that states and cities most at risk of terrorist attack receive a larger share.

Rep. Benny Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he had closed out final issues after a meeting with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

``This bill, when signed by the president, will be another step toward securing all Americans from terrorist attack,'' Lieberman said in a statement. ``It will make it more difficult for terrorists to enter and operate in the United States, while securing vulnerable targets from attack, and training and equipping first responders and preventers so they can do they job we need them to do.''

The final language was still being circulated among the negotiators and no formal announcement of a deal was expected Tuesday evening.

The compromise bill gives a much needed victory to Democrats who go into the August recess with few concrete achievements to show for their first six months in control of Congress.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House could vote on the bill Friday, and the Senate is expected to act before leaving for the recess. The White has expressed opposition to parts of the bill, particularly the provision to screen 100 percent of cargo in foreign ports, but has stopped short of issuing a veto threat.

The nonpartisan 9/11 Commission, formed after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 came out with 41 recommendations to make the nation safer from terrorist threats, covering transportation security, emergency preparedness and reforms to U.S. intelligence and diplomatic policies.

Congress and the White House have already moved to carry out some of those proposals, including creating the new position of director of national intelligence, tightening screening procedures on land borders, moving toward standardized and secure IDs, and taking countermeasures against terrorist financing.

But Democrats, in taking control of Congress, made it a top priority to act on unfulfilled recommendations. The House passed its bill on the first day of this session last January, and the Senate followed suit in March. Getting together to formulate a compromise was delayed for months over issues such as White House opposition to provisions, since dropped, that would have given airport screeners collective bargaining rights.

The last obstacle was cleared when negotiators crafted language to satisfy a Republican demand giving immunity from lawsuits to people who report suspicious behavior. The issue grew out of an incident last fall where six Muslim scholars were removed from a flight in Minneapolis after other passengers said they were acting suspiciously. The imams have since filed a lawsuit, saying their civil rights were violated.

The legislation requires that all ship containers bound for the United States undergo radiation screening before they leave foreign ports. The aim is to stop ships containing nuclear devices before they reach American destinations.

``Failure to screen all cargo containers overseas doesn't just 'miss the boat,' it could also miss the bomb, with devastating consequences for our country,'' said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a chief proponent of the measure.

There's a five-year deadline for meeting the requirement, but, in a nod to critics who question whether the technology will be ready in time, it gives the Homeland Security secretary authority to extend that deadline in two-year increments.

It approves more money for checkpoint and baggage screening at airports and requires the Homeland Security Department to screen all cargo on passenger aircraft within three years.

The bill changes the formula for distributing federal security grants to better reflect terrorist threats. Currently states are guaranteed 0.75 percent of grant funds, but the bill cuts that guarantee in half and approves $950 million annually over the next five years for state homeland security grants.

The legislation also authorizes separate grant programs for rail, transit and bus security at more than $4 billion for four years and creates a new program within the Homeland Security Department to improve communication links among state, local and federal officials.

Also coinciding with 9/11 Commission recommendations, the legislation strengthens a board that oversees privacy and civil liberties issues, establishes a new electronic travel authorization system for countries that have a visa waiver agreement with the United States and requires Congress and the president to disclose the total amount of funds appropriated for the intelligence community, a number that is now classified.
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