9/11 Families Battle Over Intel Reforms

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 intelligence reforms passed in short order.

Four senators and representatives charged with heading the effort to enact intelligence reforms recommended by the Sept. 11 commission (search) have been squabbling for a week over "poison pill" issues in the House version of the reform measure. The linchpin of the negotiations has been over 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.

Late Wednesday, the "Big Four" negotiators, Sens. Susan Collins (search), R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Reps. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Jane Harman, D-Calif., released a joint statement saying they "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.”

Earlier in the day, however, 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.

"We reject the notions that this artificial Nov. 2 deadline will kill all efforts. We say that these good men and women are sincere about tackling terrorism and this immigration bill," said Debra Burlingame, who lost her brother in the World Trade Center attack.

But while Burlingame's group spoke, a rival victims’ families group called the 9/11 Commission Family Steering Committee listened in the back of the room. Once the press conference ended, members of the Family Steering Committee commandeered the microphones — proceeding to hold their own news conference to rebut claims made minutes before.

Each Steering Committee member at the podium emphasized his or her position 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 intransigence of House Republicans has produced a failure by Congress in its primary responsibility to protect the American people. And President Bush did not provide the necessary leadership to break the impasse," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search), D-Calif. "Republicans have proven themselves unfit to lead. America deserves better, and America will do better under Democratic leadership."

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."