WASHINGTON – While hope was alive Wednesday that congressional negotiators could move quickly toward a cross-chamber compromise on intelligence reform legislation, legislators hit a standstill after a potential offer appeared to have collapsed.
Now the hope that the bill could be passed by Election Day is up in the air.
The four leaders in the negotiation process, Sen. Susan Collins (search), R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman (search), D-Conn., ranking Democrat on that committee, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (search), R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and Rep. Jane Harman (search), D-Calif., sat down late Wednesday and early Thursday to discuss a new proposal by House Republicans to bring the two chambers closer.
Details of the proposed offer were not immediately available, but after several hours of meeting on Wednesday evening, hopes of a quick compromise had faltered. The conference meeting that had been scheduled for Thursday afternoon was also postponed.
Conferees started Wednesday's meeting with all kinds of pledges to work together, but Hoekstra surprised members when he suggested that House Republicans would be willing to move their chamber's bill to reflect more closely the Senate and White House preferences for powers given to a new national intelligence director (search).
The authority given to the NID has been a source of contention between House Republicans and the Senate. White House officials on Tuesday urged negotiators to agree on the Senate version of the bill, which gives the NID stronger budget authority, among other powers.
At the end of Wednesday's meeting, Hoekstra suggested that he was in the process of finalizing an offer drafted by House Republicans to bring their bill closer to the White House and Senate position.
After Harman and other Democrats bristled at what they perceived to be another example of being "excluded" from the negotiation process, the ranking Democrat ceded to the wishes of Collins and Lieberman, who suggested a sit-down of the "big four" to discuss the details.
But after meeting with Hoekstra on Wednesday night, the offer presented behind closed doors fell far short, said a spokeswoman for Lieberman.
"It was basically an unacceptable offer," spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said. "It was a weak effort. It wasn't what we had been led to believe ... there was no paper and no real language."
Phillips said that the offer did include a change or two but only vague elements that related to giving more budget authority to the NID but "providing no structure beneath the NID."
Phillips said while Collins and Lieberman still believe Hoekstra "wants to deal," he has to contend with forces within his own party, for instance Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who heads up the Judiciary Committee.
Phillips said it's her understanding that Hoekstra is now working on another offer, but whether a bill could be done by Election Day is up in the air.
"It's hard to say right now. It could pop at any time or drag on forever," she said, adding that in the last 24 hours, "we haven't made much headway."
The fact that House Republicans were willing to offer concessions on the bill still has changed the prospects of the reforms actually being passed before Election Day, which is Nov. 2. Prior to the conference, several congressional members and press secretaries said it would be nearly impossible, given the significant differences between the House and Senate bills, to reach a compromise on the bill before the election.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he was "gratified" by the first steps being taken.
"I remain hopeful that the conferees will finalize intelligence reform prior to the election, and am impressed with the spirit of dedication and energy expressed today by all members of the conference committee," Frist said in a statement.
The reform bills are based on recommendations by the Sept. 11 commission (search), which proposed a national intelligence director to control almost all of the nation's 15 intelligence agencies. It also calls for a national counterterrorism center, better oversight by Congress, strengthening the FBI and homeland security and broadening communications around the world.
Among specific recommendations, commissioners called for safeguards at home such as setting national standards for driver's licenses and other identification, improving "no-fly" and other terrorist watch lists and using more biometric identifiers to screen travelers at ports and borders.
On Tuesday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) and Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten set out the administration's stance in a 10-page letter to Collins and Hoekstra.
The two officials said the administration supports giving the new national intelligence director "strong" budget authority, but also states a preference for provisions that prevent disclosure of the entire intelligence budget to the public. The first measure is in the Senate bill, the second in the House version.
The officials also warned against the creation of "more layers of bureaucracy" and look to curb any possibility of placing restraints on executive authority. For instance, the Bush administration opposes a requirement in the Senate bill that the general counsel for the national intelligence director be appointed from civilian fields. The letter says the president should be able to "pick the best qualified candidate" for the job.
The letter also warns lawmakers not to overdo the new management structure of the intelligence community. The White House does not support giving full hiring and firing authority to the NID, but does want the NID to have some say in appointments, the letter adds.
In addition to measures found in the Senate bill, the House legislation includes additional government anti-terrorism powers and barriers against illegal immigration. House Republicans had said they would insist on their version despite opposition from House Democrats and the Senate.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the Sept. 11 terror attacks, not the upcoming election, should determine the pace with which a compromise can come.
"We want to get this done and get it done quickly. This isn't about 11/2 ... it's about 9/11 ... it's not about protecting any candidate, but protecting America," he said.
FOX News' Julie Asher contributed to this report.