WASHINGTON - Negotiations were going down to the wire late yesterday to salvage a congressional deal to secure the nation's chemical plants from terrorist attack five years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
With legislation to tighten chemical plant security stalled in the face of industry opposition for the fourth year in a row, Republican leaders said they were attempting to insert language into a sweeping homeland security spending bill that would give the federal government authority to set security standards for the first time.
"If we are going to get a bill this year, it has to be done through the appropriations process," Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said. "It's important to give the Department of Homeland Security the authority to regulate chemical security."
Security analyses have repeatedly identified chemical plants as prime terrorist targets. But consensus on how to enhance security, or even on the $33.7 billion bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, was proving elusive late yesterday as Republicans sought a banner to campaign on for the midterm elections.
Environmental, public interest and 9/11 groups were up in arms that a compromise might be worse than no deal at all. They accused King of reneging on an earlier commitment to require high-risk chemical facilities to switch to less-toxic materials. And they panned a proposal they said he had floated, along with Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, that would authorize the Department of Homeland Security to regulate only the highest-risk chemical plants - and bar it from requiring any particular security measure.
"It's quite a Christmas bonus for the chemical industry lobby to have Congress literally cut and paste their voluntary programs into law," said Rick Hind, legislative director of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign.
King flatly denied he had backed such a compromise.
"I've never agreed to that language," he said. "This is a phony story. I'm involved in very intense negotiations with a variety of people. And you can judge me by the end result. What you're seeing is different pressure groups trying to use reporters to achieve their own purposes. I'd rather have no bill than a bad bill."
Some, however, were skeptical. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that Republicans were saying one thing and doing another.
Homeland Security "Secretary Chertoff may be calling publicly for Congress to pass the comprehensive chemical security bills," Markey said, "but behind closed doors, the Bush administration has been pressuring Republicans to enact the weakest possible language."