The chairman of the Sept. 11 commission urged Sunday that President Bush intervene to break the congressional deadlock over the panel’s intelligence and domestic security recommendations, warning that failure to pass the measure soon would risk American lives.
“He should call in whoever he thinks is necessary and do whatever he can to get this bill through,” said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, the Republican who headed the independent, bipartisan panel that investigated how the 2001 terrorist attacks happened. “This bill will pass. The question is whether it will pass now or after a second attack.”
The measure -- a carefully crafted compromise between radically different versions of bills passed in October by the House and the Senate -- has the support of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as well as the leaders of the House and Senate.
But on Nov. 20, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) decided not to bring the compromise up for a vote after two powerful conservative committee chairmen raised strong objections to specific provisions.
Kean, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that unless the stalemate could be resolved during a lame-duck session of Congress next month, it would be at least six months before the new Congress would be ready to reconsider the intelligence overhaul that would bring all 15 U.S. intelligence agencies under the control of a new national intelligence director.
“I don’t think we can wait that long,” Kean said.
In response, White House spokeswoman Pamela Stevens said Sunday that “the president has made it clear that he wants to get this legislation passed as quickly as possible, and he is going to continue working closely with Congress to make this happen.”
She added that “we will have more to say in the days ahead,” but declined to provide specifics.
Meanwhile, the two influential House Republicans who spearheaded opposition to the legislation after a House-Senate conference committee had hammered out the compromise reiterated their objections on Sunday morning talk shows.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the bill could jeopardize the safety of U.S. troops in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan by denying them timely intelligence about enemy positions from spy satellites. This could mean the difference between “life and death to our people in the field,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The measure would compel the Pentagon, which controls about 80% of the nation’s $40-billion intelligence budget, to shift much of that authority to the new national intelligence director. Hunter has expressed concerns that under the compromise bill, the chain of command between the intelligence agencies and military personnel on the ground would be ambiguous.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), cosponsor of the Senate bill, rejected Hunter’s contention, arguing that “battlefield intelligence and joint military intelligence would remain under the control of the Pentagon.” At the same time, she said, the troops -- as well as the public at large -- would be better protected by improved coordination and analysis of intelligence.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his opposition stemmed from the compromise bill’s omission of provisions he had sought, including one that would establish federal standards for driver’s licenses to prevent them from being issued to illegal immigrants.
“What good is reorganizing intelligence if we don’t have homeland security?” Sensenbrenner asked on ABC’s “This Week.”
The Sept. 11 commission’s vice chairman, former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, called this a valid concern, but said it should be addressed in a separate bill rather than hanging up hundreds of provisions in the intelligence legislation -- including assistance for police and firefighters and improvements in border and aviation security.
Kean said he expected that Bush would prevent the measure from being scuttled. “When he says he’s for something, he’s been for it, he’s fought for it, and he’s gotten it passed,” the former governor said. “And my belief is, and my hope is, that he will do the same thing with this bill.”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a supporter of the compromise bill, agreed that Bush needed to persuade recalcitrant House Republicans to back the measure. And despite the Pentagon’s concerns about losing authority over intelligence, Roberts said on CNN’s “Late Edition,” the Bush administration must “speak with one voice.”
Hastert has been criticized for failing to bring to a vote a measure that was backed by Senate Republicans and, with substantial Democratic support, a majority of House members. Hastert had urged his GOP colleagues to support the bill.
Hastert’s press secretary, John Feehery, said Sunday that the speaker held out the possibility of a vote when lawmakers returned to Washington on Dec. 6. But he said it would depend on changes in positions.
“Right now,” Feehery said, “it’s hard to say if anything’s changed.”