Posted on November 17, 2004

Intelligence Bill A Priority

Brian DeBose, Washington Times, Nov. 17

House and Senate negotiators still are at odds concerning a bill to overhaul the nation’s intelligence community, with the top Republican and Democratic negotiators in each chamber meeting yesterday to try to hammer out immigration reforms and budget and spending authority for a national intelligence director.

Two sticking points are measures authored in the House Judiciary Committee: one to expand judicial discretion in asylum cases and another that would make it difficult for suspected terrorists to claim asylum and make it possible to deport them even to countries known to commit torture.

Senate negotiators don’t want to accept the provisions, but both have the full support of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

“We have to be able to dispose of these people in a way that protects us, and although some have called it an immigration issue, it is not — it is a terrorist issue,” Mr. Hastert said. “We want to make sure we fulfill the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, but also improve our border security and track people coming into the country illegally.”

In a discussion with a member of the September 11 Family Steering Committee, Mr. Hastert said those are the two major issues holding up consensus on a measure that can be brought up for a vote.

A third disagreement involves the insistence of Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, and others that the national intelligence director have a secret budget but have no budget authority or daily operations duties over the military’s intelligence agencies.

Mr. Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has refused to budge on those issues and has the support of Mr. Hastert and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“I personally believe that money should remain black. We don’t want everyone to know what we’re doing there,” the speaker said.

The two conference chairmen, Republicans Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, and the ranking Democrats, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Jane Harman of California, met in private yesterday to try to reach a compromise.

Before yesterday afternoon’s meeting, Mr. Lieberman said the conferees needed to take action “within a day or so” in order to have a bill ready to vote on this session.

“We’re making progress, but time is running out,” he said.

He said his Senate colleagues must understand that the only way a bill gets done this year is by moving more toward the House position.

“We’re not going to get the Senate bill out of the conference, so we’ve got to get something we’re comfortable with — better than the status quo,” Mr. Lieberman said.

Sen. John E. Sununu, New Hampshire Republican, and a member of the conference said he also was concerned, but for different reasons, noting that drawing a line on the immigration provisions is a dangerous position to take.

“Our goal should be to pass in the broadest terms the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. If we can’t reach an agreement on a handful of provisions that they did not call for, we should eliminate them and not let them prevent us from getting a bill,” Mr. Sununu said.

Congressional aides in both chambers say that House leaders feel no need to give in on their key provisions because if Congress comes back next year, the Senate will have four more Republicans — and, in particular, four Republicans who currently are House members and who voted for the House version this year.

Mr. Lieberman said that’s one reason senators should push for a bill this year.

“I worry we get no bill” next year, he said, adding that right now, “We still have some momentum going and the immediacy, though it’s diminished, of the 9/11 commission report.”

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, said holding the matter over for the 109th Congress could be disastrous.

“I’d like to move on it now instead of next year. I mean, in two or three months we’ve got health care, Social Security, taxes and tort reform, judges and an energy policy, and these same issues will continue to be there,” Mr. Allen said.