Sen. Daniel K. Inouye has introduced legislation that would mandate "screening," but not inspection, of all cargo in passenger airliners.
Aides say screening would be less stringent than physical inspection. Currently, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has a number of screening programs, including the "Known Shipper" program, which requires the vetting of shippers before they are certified.
"I think [screening] means a number of things, whether it's physically looking at something, whether it's putting it through some kind of a machine or making sure the Known Shipper program is absolutely airtight," a Democratic Senate aide said.
Inouye, D-Hawaii, the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has not yet scheduled action on the legislation (S 509).
His bill, which covers only aviation security, will eventually become a part of Senate legislation that would implement some recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission that have not yet been enacted.
That sets up a potential conflict with the House, which passed a Sept. 11 bill (HR 1) last month that would require the inspection of all incoming air cargo, which is typically carried in the bellies of commercial aircraft. Shippers and manufacturers have expressed concern that the proposed new requirement would impede "just-in-time" shipments of materials ranging from computer chips to medical supplies.
TSA spokesman Christopher White said that TSA already screens all high-risk air cargo, as well as all cargo at 200 small airports, through scanning machines.
House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has repeated his preference for mandating the inspection of all air cargo, but he has also said that his cargo screening proposals would not likely survive House-Senate conference negotiations on the Sept. 11 bill.
The House bill also includes a proposal to scan all incoming cargo containers from foreign seaports. So far, Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has not committed to a similar provision in the Senate bill, and aides say he will likely exclude such a provision because the Sept. 11 commission did not recommend it.