A telephone call from President Bush and other high-level White House interventions brought House and Senate negotiators close to agreement Tuesday on legislation that would consolidate authority over the nation’s spy agencies in a powerful national intelligence director.
After sending conflicting signals for weeks, the White House over the weekend took its strongest action yet to end the stalemate that began shortly after the House and the Senate passed radically different intelligence bills in early October. For the first time, Bush called a key House negotiator to urge a compromise, and the White House followed up Monday by sending senior officials to meet with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chief sponsor of the Senate bill.
“It’s a full-court press,” said John Feehery, press secretary for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
“It’s White House pressure, it’s deadline pressure, it’s a desire to get something done” that is driving Congress to finish the bill, he said.
Early Tuesday afternoon, the four chief House and Senate negotiators began a session aimed at closing a deal so that both chambers could take a final vote on the bill before the end of the lame-duck session, which Congress would like to complete by week’s end. Nothing final was expected Tuesday night, however.
The proposed overhaul of the intelligence community is based on the report of the commission created by Congress to investigate the events leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. The commission offered detailed recommendations for restructuring the government to better confront global terrorism -- including bringing control of the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies under a national intelligence director with authority over budgets and hiring and firing top personnel.
Members of both parties vowed to work quickly to complete legislation in response to the report, and legislation moved through the House and the Senate at a breakneck pace prior to the Nov. 2 election.
But opposition from the Pentagon and its supporters -- and doubts voiced by national security experts that either bill would truly address the problems facing the intelligence community -- seemed likely to derail it.
Although negotiators said they were pleased that the legislation -- which some had written off for dead just days ago -- seemed to have been resurrected, some Senate Democrats expressed concern that the Senate was making too many concessions to the House. For the first time, the Senate’s bipartisan front on its version of intelligence restructuring appeared to be cracking.
The Senate bill passed with unanimous support from Republicans and with the votes of all but two Democrats. By contrast, the House bill was fashioned by the chamber’s Republican leadership and was approved over the objections of many Democrats.
Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.), a member of the conference committee, said the Senate’s chief negotiators had accepted a House demand stripping out all congressional oversight of the national intelligence director. Rockefeller said that he and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), another committee member, thought such oversight was essential to ensure the proper functioning of the intelligence community.
“All the oversight has been stripped out, and that is just unacceptable,” said Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
In a separate interview, Levin said that he, too, was concerned.
“There are still a lot of remaining issues,” said Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “One of the most important parts of this bill is that we have provisions that ensure the independence and objectivity of intelligence.”
The Senate bill, Levin said, strengthened oversight of intelligence activities. “The White House is opposed to congressional oversight and it might be watered down,” Levin said, adding that such a revision would make it “very difficult for me” to support the bill.
It was unclear Tuesday night whether controversial immigration and law enforcement provisions in the House bill -- opposed by many senators, civil liberties groups and others -- would remain in the final legislation.
Another contentious issue is the estimated $40-billion annual intelligence budget. Currently, the Pentagon controls about 80% of the budget; the Senate bill calls for much of that authority to be transferred to the national intelligence director, but the House bill would give that post less power.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, confirmed that the president had called Hunter over the weekend to discuss the intelligence bill. She declined to characterize the discussion, but said that Hunter’s position on budget authority for the national intelligence director “is unchanged.”
Hunter, who has emerged as one of the strongest negotiators on the bill, enlisted help from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, and from Philip D. Zelikow, staff director of the Sept. 11 commission, in his fight to restrict the budget authority granted to a national intelligence director.
Hunter has argued that the Pentagon needs to preserve its authority over the budgets of agencies providing combat support in order to preserve the link between intelligence and the Pentagon.
Feehery said that after weeks of fruitless negotiations, Hastert was optimistic Tuesday that an agreement was within reach.
The last 15 days had been “like the Bataan death march” for House and Senate staffers, Feehery said, with negotiations lasting until well past midnight every night. The reference was to a brutal march the Japanese forced U.S. prisoners of war to make in the Philippines in April 1942.