The Senate has passed legislation that would put the National Institute of Standards and Technology in charge of investigating building failures and give the investigative teams ability to get information they need for their probes. The measure was approved on Sept. 9 by unanimous consent.

In July, the House had passed a nearly identical bill, by a wide margin. The plan is for the House to take up the Senate's version early in the week of Sept 16 and then send it to President Bush for his signature, says Heidi Tringe, a spokesperson for the House Science Committee. Science panel Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) introduced the House version.

(Photo courtesy of Office of Sen. Clinton)

The bill, titled the National Construction Safety Team Act, stemmed from problems faced by those investigating the World Trade Center collapse. The legislation puts a federal agency, NIST, clearly in charge of probing building failures, whatever the cause. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) also noted that the measure "would provide to NIST clear authority to enter sites, access documents, test materials, and move evidence, as well as clear authority to issue subpoenas."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill, said, "By empowering the government to properly investigate major structural failure we are taking a big step forward toward preventing future disasters and loss of life."

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) added, "This bill was a no-brainer. If, God forbid, there was another attack on this country or significant building collapse, it only makes sense that the best possible experts are given full investigative power."

Under the legislation, NIST would name members of an investigative team. The group would have at least one NIST employee, but also could draw on government and private-sector officials. Any non-federal team members would be considered federal contractors, which provides them with a liability shield.

The bill moved straight to the Senate floor, bypassing action by the commerce committee. Hollings, who chairs the commerce panel, said and other lawmakers had sought to speed the measure through the Senate so it could be approved by Sept. 11.