House GOP Digs In on Intelligence Overhaul
House Republicans late Thursday easily defeated an effort by Democrats to pass an intelligence reform bill modeled on one adopted by the Senate, setting the stage for a showdown between the two chambers over their competing legislation.
The spirit of bipartisanship that animated the Senate’s eight-day debate over a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s Cold War-era intelligence structure evaporated as soon as the House debate began Thursday.
Although the White House, in a policy statement, criticized the House bill for failing to give the new national intelligence director enough authority, Republicans insisted that their legislation would make the nation safer.
The Republican leadership predicted its bill would pass easily today on what is supposed to be the last day of the session.
“It’s not a good feeling on the House floor,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who had joined Democrats in crafting the substitute the Democrats proposed to the Republican leadership’s bill. The substitute was defeated by a voice vote.
Acknowledging that Democrats face a political dilemma as they ponder whether to vote against a security-related bill so close to the Nov. 2 election, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said that although she intended to vote against it because she thought the bill was wrong, she was “not encouraging others” to follow her example.
If the bill by the House Republican leadership passes, the House still must reconcile it with the very different bill passed in the Senate with a bipartisan 96-2 vote on Wednesday.
Both the Senate and the House bills would consolidate the spy agencies under a national intelligence director, and both would create a national counter-terrorism center. But the House bill would give the director less authority over budgets and personnel, and it would give the counter-terrorism center no role in setting intelligence operations or budgets.
In its statement on the bill, the White House said the House measure failed to give the new national intelligence director “sufficient authorities to manage the intelligence community effectively.”
The White House also said it “strongly opposes” a provision that would allow the government to deport illegal immigrants to nations that engage in torture.
“The administration looks forward to working with the House and Senate in conference as they resolve their differences,” the administration statement said.
The White House had earlier endorsed the Senate version of intelligence reform, with reservations. The leadership of both chambers said the White House had pressured them to have a bill ready for Bush to sign before the election.
The leaders of the House and Senate have said they would call Congress back in session for a day if a compromise is reached, to vote on final passage.
Bowing to White House pressure Thursday, the House leadership said it was prepared to accept amendments addressing two of the more controversial immigration changes included in the intelligence reform bill.
One amendment would strip out a provision that would allow immigration officers to deport any illegal immigrant who had been in the country for less than five years without first allowing a hearing or review of the case.
The other would modify a provision that would make it possible to deport suspected terrorists to their countries of origin, even if those countries allowed torture.
The United States instead could indefinitely detain illegal immigrants suspected of having terrorist ties, of having committed serious crimes in their country of origin, or of posing a serious danger to the United States.
But Democrats insisted that the bill would still be rife with law enforcement and immigration measures that would reduce civil liberties and violate human rights.
“This bill is [Atty. Gen.] John Ashcroft’s wish list,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). “They are loading up this bill with questionable provisions that will not make us safer, but will undermine our civil liberties.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) countered that by expediting the removal of illegal immigrants, Congress would “protect legal immigrants to the United States, so that they do not have to pay for the sins of those who want to commit crimes and acts of terrorism.”
The Senate bill would create an independent board to monitor aspects of the government’s war on terrorism that might infringe on civil liberties or privacy, while the House bill would establish a civil liberties officer to monitor government actions.
The House would continue to keep the intelligence budget -- estimated at $40 billion -- a secret, while the Senate would disclose the aggregate budget number for all 15 intelligence agencies.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) said the House version of reform would protect the military’s access to intelligence by leaving more control over the intelligence community in the hands of the defense secretary.
Only the House bill, Hunter said, would preserve the vital partnership between the uniformed military and the intelligence services.
At a news conference Thursday, family members of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks pleaded with Congress to produce a bill that the president would sign.
Members of the Family Steering Committee, which says it represents thousands of family members, have spent weeks lobbying members of Congress to adopt the recommendations of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission.
The family members said they preferred the Senate bill, but other victims’ relatives this week publicly backed the House leadership’s bill, saying it tackled immigration issues that the Senate version ignored.