House Republicans, who had been criticized for weeks as obstacles to a bill consolidating authority over the nation's intelligence services, offered a compromise Wednesday that they said could get the bill finished before the Nov. 2 elections.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the negotiating committee to reconcile differences between the intelligence reform bills passed by the House and Senate, announced the proposal at the end of the committee's first formal meeting. Details of the proposal were expected to be released today.
House Democrats immediately cried foul, saying they were excluded from crafting the compromise. Many House Democrats had voted against the bill, which contained immigration and law enforcement measures that they said were extraneous.
But Senate negotiators, who Tuesday had said they believed House Republicans were unwilling to compromise, said they were eager to hear Hoekstra's ideas.
"If we're going to make progress, a global offer ... is a significant step forward," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who co-wrote the Senate bill.
The committee is under pressure to reach agreement quickly on a bill promoted by Republicans and Democrats as the most significant restructuring of the intelligence community in 50 years.
The White House is pushing for a signing ceremony before the election. In addition, members of the Sept. 11 commission have warned that the nation is vulnerable to attacks if authority over intelligence remains fragmented, and family members of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have demanded action.
Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would create a national intelligence director and a national counter-terrorism center to coordinate the collection and analysis of intelligence across all 15 intelligence agencies. But the Senate bill gives the director considerably more authority than the House version does.
And the House bill contains law enforcement, border security and immigration provisions that are not in the Senate bill. It streamlines deportations of some categories of illegal immigrants, broadens law enforcement surveillance powers over suspected terrorists who are not connected to any organization, increases Border Patrol officers and imposes federal standards for driver's licenses.
Family members of Sept. 11 victims wore photographs of relatives pinned to their shirts as Hoekstra convened Tuesday's formal meeting and announced that House Republicans had prepared what they thought was "a good-faith global effort" to bridge differences with the Senate.
"Whatever it is that you are planning to do has not been discussed with me at all," shot back Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), a leading Democratic negotiator. "I would question the usefulness of a Republican House product being introduced this late -- it could derail this process."
But Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the top Senate negotiators, applauded Hoekstra for attempting to make progress. Hoekstra, Harman and the two senators then agreed to discuss Hoekstra's ideas privately and to call a second committee meeting today at which he was expected to make public the provisions of his offer.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), a House negotiator, said House Republicans had made "an enormous stretch" by accepting the broad authority over budgets and personnel that the Senate bill gave the national intelligence director. Hunter had argued that removing too much control over intelligence from the Defense Department could threaten the military's access to intelligence during wartime.
The Pentagon controls about 80% of the estimated $40-billion intelligence budget. Under the Senate bill, it would keep only a fraction.
"We have a very limited amount of time," Hunter said. "This moves us beyond the conversation stage to get something done."
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, offered a passionate defense of the law enforcement, border security and immigration measures. He said the Sept. 11 commission's report detailed how terrorists "exploited weaknesses in our immigration system" to enter the United States and travel freely before carrying out their attacks.
Hoekstra warned House and Senate negotiators that he might keep them in Washington through Saturday to finish a bill.