House and Senate negotiators reached agreement last night on legislation to tighten maritime and port security regulations and, in a last-minute move, added an unrelated measure that seeks to ban Internet gambling.
At the same time, House negotiators prevailed in their fight to strip out $4.5 billion in rail and mass-transit security funds included in the Senate provision.
The port security and Internet gambling legislation was approved 409 to 2 in the House and on a voice vote in the Senate early today, as lawmakers rushed to leave Washington for their fall reelection campaigns. Senate Republican and Democratic leaders announced it would be passed by voice vote after the House's late-night vote.
Lawmakers from both parties had been crafting the port security measure for more than a year, but its passage became politically critical after a Middle Eastern government-owned company's purchase of U.S. port operations triggered a political melee in Washington early this year.
The final agreement requires radiation scanning of all containers at the top 22 U.S. seaports, orders the Department of Homeland Security to develop response and recovery plans for a terrorist attack, and sets firm deadlines for the implementation of a transportation worker identification and screening system. It authorizes $2 billion in port security grants between 2001 and 2011.
The changes angered some Democrats, who helped craft the original port security legislation but were largely blocked from the final negotiations. The Senate had overwhelmingly approved the authorization of $3.5 billion for mass-transit security grants and $1 billion for freight and passenger rail programs, but House Republicans balked at the cost.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), agreed to go along with the the bill's passage, even though his home-state casinos are split over the Internet gambling measure, aides said.
House and Senate Republican leaders pushed hard to secure the Internet gambling measure, which some Republicans viewed as a chance to clear their names after they allowed disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to scuttle a similar measure six years ago.
Proponents of the crackdown said the industry, which is mostly based overseas, provides a front for money laundering, some of it by drug sellers and terrorist groups, while preying on children and gambling addicts. Americans bet an estimated $6 billion per year online, accounting for half the worldwide market, according to analysis by the Congressional Research Service.
A coalition of on-line poker players and gambling Web sites tried to thwart the Internet gambling provision. Michael Bolcerek, president of the Poker Players Alliance, argued that it could put familiar Web sites such as Party Poker and Pacific Poker out of business while pushing gamblers to "rogue Web sites with no protection for children and no protection for problem gamblers."