WASHINGTON – With the presidential and congressional elections so close, many of the House and Senate members tasked with signing off on a compromise intelligence reform (search) bill have dispersed to their respective states and districts.
But on Friday, House and Senate negotiators are scheduled to hold a conference call during which they "hope" to agree to a more final bill, sources close to the negotiations said.
In a statement released Wednesday, the "Big Four" negotiators leading the compromise talks said that they will "continue to work to resolve the many differences between the Senate and House versions of intelligence reform legislation. The issues are challenging, complex, and difficult."
Nonetheless, with the bill still not completed despite a week and a half of discussions on the two chambers' versions, House Democratic leaders and a Sept. 11 victims' family group seized on the impasse in order to stake claims in the next congressional session.
In a statement released late Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search), D-Calif., accused President Bush and House Republicans of failing "to make America safer" and of "squandering the opportunity for significant intelligence reform."
In response, House Speaker Dennis Hastert's (search) office claimed the minority leader lacks "credibility" on the matter at hand.
"It’s a shame that Mrs. Pelosi has continued to play politics with issues as important as national security … an issue on which she has no credibility," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery.
Though the four senators and representatives charged with heading the effort to enact intelligence reforms recommended by the Sept. 11 commission (search) are trying to get a vote on a final bill when Congress returns to Capitol Hill in November for a lame-duck session, Pelosi said she didn’t think that goal would be met and Democrats will place the legislation on the top of its agenda at the start of the 109th Congress.
"If this Congress does not pass a bill, Democrats will schedule the bipartisan Senate intelligence reform bill on the first day that the next Congress convenes in January," Pelosi said, working on the assumption that Democrats will lead the House next session and thereby have the authority to schedule votes. "This legislation is too critical to the security of the American people to allow Republican failures to prevent it from being passed it into law."
At issue are "poison pill" provisions included in the House version of the intelligence reform bill. In meetings over the past week and a half, the "Big Four" negotiators, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and Reps. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Jane Harman, D-Calif, chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, have gone back and forth over the "linchpin" provision holding up the legislation — namely, how much control a national intelligence director should have over the intelligence budget.
Senate leaders, House Democrats and the White House support granting full budget authority to an NID, but House Republicans want to keep control of that money with the Pentagon, as is the current arrangement. An immigration provision included in the House GOP's bill is also causing headaches for negotiators.
After their teleconference on Friday, the Big Four plan to announce the status of their work thus far. Both House Republican and Democratic staff involved with the negotiations were pessimistic that the conferees would come to some sort of consensus at that time.
Though the negotiations have taken place behind closed doors and the negotiators have rarely briefed the media, members of competing Sept. 11 terror victims' families dueled for media attention on Capitol Hill Wednesday as the groups tried to gain the upper hand in convincing congressional negotiators of the best way to get the intelligence reforms passed in short order.
Early in the day, two separate, competing interest groups of Sept. 11 victims' family members — many of whom daily demand their voices be heard during the negotiations — clashed with one another at a press conference scheduled as a solo event by the 9/11 Families for a Secure America. This group promotes the House GOP's position of stricter immigration provisions and believes that passing border security is more important than dealing with the intelligence reform measures.
At Wednesday's press conference, they said that Congress shouldn’t buckle under the pressure of people who are crying "gloom and doom" if President Bush doesn’t have a bill on his desk by Election Day, an ambitious goal that lawmakers had been trying to meet for months.
Members of a rival victims’ families group called the 9/11 Commission Family Steering Committee countered that if Bush does not sign intelligence reform by next Tuesday, then public officials should be "held responsible." They repeated their argument that if the president really wanted this legislation on his desk by Election Day, he "could make it happen."
"It’s not a date, it’s the election — it’s a concept. … Are we going to hold our president accountable?" asked Family Steering Committee member Beverly Eckert, who decried claims that the Election Day deadline is an "artificial date."
House Democratic leaders and members of the Family Steering Committee both released statements late Wednesday in which they connected the "failure to pass 9/11 legislation" to the upcoming elections and highlighted the need for "accountability" on Election Day.
The Family Steering Committee also accused the President of not reining in House GOP members when "roadblocks emerged."
"The president never took time from his campaign to come to Washington himself to see this through. He has allowed members of his own party to derail the legislative process. ... Election Day is imminent. Now it's our turn. We will hold them accountable."