WASHINGTON – Veto threats from the White House and a rebellion over national standards for driver’s licenses enlivened the opening debate Wednesday on a Senate bill to adopt recommendations by the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The Improving America’s Security Act of 2007, a version of which has passed the House, would increase protections against terrorists, including measures to bolster emergency communications and international cooperation on anti-terrorism technology.
It also would give the nation’s 43,000 airport screeners collective bargaining rights. That provision – strongly backed by labor’s Democratic allies – prompted President Bush to issue the veto threat and Republican senators to promise to sustain his veto.
Senators also set the stage for a second battle with the administration, introducing an amendment to delay implementation of a controversial law that sets new requirements for driver’s licenses. The White House champions the 2005 Real ID Act, which will require every applicant to prove his or her citizenship or legal residency before renewing a license.
But state legislators are resisting the law, which takes effect in May 2008 and could cost states billions of dollars to implement.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., combined the bill with three others that address rail and aviation security, emergency communications and terrorism protections for public transportation.
The bill, supported by the 9/11 Commission, would provide $3.3 billion in grants over five years to help local, regional, state and federal communities create communications systems that can talk to each other. The incompatibility of those systems was a central problem on Sept. 11, 2001, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said, recalling “people running into buildings when they should have been running out.”
The legislation also would reverse some funding cuts by the administration, allocating $3.1 billion for fire departments, emergency services and police for training and equipment.
The bill also includes measures to protect privacy. It would strengthen a board that monitors whether anti-terrorism programs violate civil liberties; require federal agencies to report annually on how they use data-mining technology to search for criminal or terrorist activity; and create standards for intelligence sharing among federal, state, local and tribal governments.
Debate Wednesday was mostly low-key, until lawmakers rose to comment on an amendment to delay implementation of the Real ID Act. The law requires states to issue forgery-proof driver’s licenses embedded with personal data, sparking concerns about privacy and complaints that it is a backdoor way to create a national ID.
“I cannot tell you the angst and apprehension over the issue of Real ID,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. “There’s no bigger unfunded mandate or more atrocious mandate than this unfunded mandate.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures, working with the National Governors Association and the American Association of Motor Vehicles, has estimated that the law will cost states $11 billion over 10 years.