Hours after House and Senate negotiators reached final agreement yesterday on a bill to implement recommendations of the September 11 commission, the House Republican Conference rejected it, with members telling their leaders in a “frank” meeting that the Senate and President Bush were asking for too much power for a national intelligence director and too little in new immigration security.
Earlier yesterday the negotiators had emerged confident from a final meeting, and the commission put out a congratulatory statement on the agreement that had the approval of Mr. Bush and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
But a group of House Republicans, led by Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, demanded a full caucus meeting. There it became clear a strong majority of Republicans agreed with the chairmen of the House Armed Services and Judiciary committees, who objected to the intelligence and immigration provisions.
That leaves the bill’s fate in doubt. Mr. Hastert plans to call Congress back in December and hopes that an agreement could be approved then, but members on both sides of the split said they don’t expect anything to change.
“We are so close but so far, in being able to pull this off,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who supported the compromise. “I don’t right now see a process whereby we get this done in the next few weeks. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but nobody has exactly laid out for me what that path would be.”
Meanwhile, Congress passed a $388 billion omnibus spending measure to fund the government for fiscal 2005, which began Oct. 1. The intelligence bill and spending package were supposed to be the final votes of the 108th Congress.
The spending bill, a conglomeration of nine overdue appropriations bills, passed the House 344-51 with 27 Republicans and 24 Democrats voting against it, then passed the Senate 65-30, with six Republicans, 23 Democrats and one independent voting against it.
But the measure stalled for hours in the Senate after staffers discovered that the bill, which runs thousands of pages, includes a provision that would allow the appropriations committees to grant access to anyone’s IRS tax forms to anybody the committee chairmen chose.
While promising to pass another resolution to remove the provision, Senate committee Chairman Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, apologized.
“It’s more than a mistake, it’s a terrible disaster,” he said, adding that it was a provision stuck in by some staffers and never seen, much less agreed to, by the senators or House members. The Senate then unanimously passed a brief bill to strip the offending language, but it must await House passage next week.
In the meantime, the spending bill will be kept in the Capitol to ensure it is not signed into law by the president. Congress passed a temporary bill to keep the government open until then.
In both chambers, Democrats and some Republicans complained about a provision in the omnibus bill that would prevent courts and state and local governments from insisting that a doctor or hospital perform abortions or refer patients and that insurers cover abortions.
Democrats said it doesn’t cover many pressing needs.
“This bill is a poster child for institutional failure,” said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “It’s totally inadequate to meet the nation’s needs in education, health care and the environment.”
But the day was dominated by the failure to pass the intelligence bill, which would have created a national intelligence director to coordinate all U.S. intelligence agencies and establish a counterterrorism center.
House and Senate negotiators struck a deal overnight and emerged confident of its success. They predicted the Senate would pass it overwhelmingly in a bipartisan fashion and figured most House Democrats and enough House Republicans would support it for it to pass there, too.
Mr. Hastert, though, refused to bring the bill to a vote after his own House Republicans voiced their displeasure.
“House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter made the most compelling argument,” Mr. Hastert said. “Duncan was concerned that the proposed reform could endanger our troops in the field, who use real-time intelligence to fight the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have asked our conferees to go back to the negotiating table to make absolutely certain whatever we do, we protect our war fighters.”
But those who supported the bill, including Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, said the measure simply wasn’t a threat to the military.
“The commander in chief, in the middle of a war, has said he needs this bill to help him carry out his duties to help him protect the American people and the war fighters,” Mr. Lieberman said. He said it was a particular slap at the president, who was just re-elected, from the staunch conservative base of his own party.
“This is not a victory of partisanship, this frustration and delay, it’s a victory for—I have to call it ideological or policy rigidity in the face of national-security threats we are dealing with,” he said.
Miss Collins said there are some members of the House who never wanted to see a bill anyway.
“I think what you’re seeing here is the forces in favor of the status quo protecting their turf, whether it’s in the Congress or in the bureaucracy,” she said.
In the House meeting, some Republican lawmakers said, much of the discussion was directed at Mr. Bush and his urging the House to drop the immigration-security provisions they included in their original bill.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, said he believes a number of Republicans “held their tongues” during the election over immigration issues, and yesterday was the first forum since the election to talk about the matter.
“It was a very frank discussion,” he said.
On Friday night, Mr. Bush, traveling in Chile, personally called Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, to urge him to sign the agreement. He told Mr. Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to drop his insistence on strict national standards to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses, said several Republican aides.
Mr. Sensenbrenner said he would, but only if the president would have the senators accept other immigration provisions, such as tighter restrictions on asylum-seekers and faster deportation processes. Senate negotiators had already rejected those once and refused to budge again Friday night, arguing that the immigration language went far beyond what was necessary for the bill.
Mr. Sensenbrenner then refused to sign off and he persuaded fellow House Republicans in yesterday’s meeting to oppose the bill as well.
He said the September 11 commission called for standards for driver’s licenses, because the 19 hijackers in the terrorist attacks obtained 63 validly issued driver’s licenses, and he said that provision must be a part of the final bill.
Rather than a bill to implement all of the commission’s findings, though, Miss Collins said she viewed it only as an overhaul of the intelligence community.
“It’s very likely that Congress is going to turn to immigration reform sometime next year. That is the time for the debate on these highly divisive and controversial provisions,” Miss Collins said. “They do not belong in the intelligence-reform bill.”