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Senate passes bill to help insurance industry in event of terrorist attack
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    WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted Friday to extend for seven years a post-Sept. 11 law guaranteeing federal help for the insurance industry in the event of a catastrophic terrorist attack.
    The Senate measure, approved by voice vote, differs considerably from a House version passed in September, and the two chambers have until the end of the year, when the current Terrorism Risk Insurance Act expires, to work out their differences.
    The program, known as TRIA, was created in 2002 after the private insurance market for developers collapsed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. ‘‘Without this program, terrorism insurance will become unavailable or prohibitively expensive, construction projects would grind to a halt and Americans would lose jobs,’’ Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
    The program, capped at $100 billion a year, pledges government assistance to help pay for losses from terrorism. The Senate bill retains the current threshold of $100 million for triggering federal aid. The House approach would lower the threshold to $50 million.
    The House measure, passed 312-110, would extend the program for 15 years, rather than the seven years in the Senate bill. It specifies that nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological attacks will be covered.
    The White House threatened to veto the House bill, saying the 15-year extension effectively makes TRIA permanent, increases the federal role in the private insurance market, and ‘‘expands the scope of coverage well beyond the point where it is needed.’’
    Last month Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wrote leaders of the Senate Banking Committee repeating the administration position that TRIA should be phased out in favor of a private market for terrorism insurance. But he said the administration would not oppose the Senate version as long as it did not expand the current program.
    Marc Racicot, president of the American Insurance Association, welcomed the Senate action Friday, saying the seven-year extension ‘‘will provide more stability and certainty in the market and will foster long-term investment and economic growth.’’
    Racicot, former Montana governor and former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, said it was crucial that Congress reauthorize the program by the end of the year.
    A final sticking point for the Senate was how to meet budget rules that require offsets for new spending. The Congressional Budget Office, while acknowledging that there is no accurate way to estimate damages from any future terrorist attacks, put the cost of the program at $3.4 billion over the next five years.
    The Senate bill includes provisions to speed up recoupment payments that insurance companies must already make, up to a certain level, on federal aid. The House bill contains language requiring Congress to enact a resolution approving federal funds after a terrorist attack.
    Presidential hopeful Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said he returned to Washington late Thursday night after the Democratic debate in Las Vegas to iron out the last Republican objections and pass the bill before the Senate leaves on a two-week Thanksgiving recess. He said he was ‘‘very confident’’ the House and Senate could reach a compromise before Congress adjourns at the end of the year.
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