Carol Ashley has been waiting six long years for the country to become safer. It's been that long since her 25-year-old daughter, Janice, perished when the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.
It's been almost three years now since the 9/11 commission reviewed the attacks and issued recommendations aimed at preventing a similar calamity.
Now, Ashley hopes she may have only a few more weeks to wait, as Congress hashes out the final details of a bill that would put the commission's remaining recommendations on the books. The bill would do an assortment of things--it beefs up port security, provides grants to improve first responders' communications systems, and enhances information sharing among law enforcement agencies.
A congressional conference committee convened last Thursday to begin the process of reconciling the differences between the House and Senate versions of the measure.
Throughout this long legislative ordeal, Ashley and other 9/11 victims' family members have stayed vigilant, pressing Congress to see the legislation through. "Every day that we delay is a day that al Qaeda has an advantage," Ashley said. She took a 4 1/2 hour Amtrak train ride from Long Island to Washington, D.C., to attend the conference committee proceedings.
When the Democrats took control of Congress in January, House Democrats made the 9/11 commission's still outstanding recommendations a top priority and introduced legislation immediately. H.R. 1 was passed on Jan. 9, 2007. The Senate approached the issue more deliberately and passed its version of the bill on March 13. Now the two houses have to work out the last tricky details; the major points of contention are cargo screening and transportation grants.
Conference committee members were supposed to finalize all that Thursday, but after two hours of opening statements, the members had discussed only two of five proposed amendments.
One important issue, whether or not to require 100 percent screening of maritime cargo, was resolved. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, introduced an amendment that would create a five-year deadline for 100 percent scanning but allow the Department of Homeland Security to push back the deadline if necessary.
That proposal drew the support of Republican lawmakers who feared that screening technology wouldn't be able to keep up with the amount of commerce flowing through the ports.
An amendment that would allow the Transportation Department, not the Department of Homeland Security, to distribute transit security grants failed, and the issue remains unresolved.
While members of Congress repeatedly praised the 9/11 family members in attendance, Ashley didn't feel especially happy that the bill might finally be close to passage. "It's actually mixed feelings," she said. "It has taken much too long to put these security safeguards in place."
Others too, including one of the 9/11 commissioners, Tim Roemer, were uncomfortable with the delay. "I don't think the president made this a high-enough priority," Roemer said.
And it isn't over until it's over. Congress still has several details to work out, and no meetings have been scheduled on the bill this week.
By Nikki Schwab