Congress hopes to break intelligence reforme deadlock

Monday, November 22, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Unwilling to concede defeat, congressional leaders expressed hope Sunday that lawmakers could return next month to resolve a turf battle that has blocked passage of an overhaul of the nation's intelligence agencies. Much depends on whether President Bush is more active in bringing his own troops in line, they said.

"For us to do the bill in early December it will take significant involvement by the president and the vice president," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "It will take real focus on their part."

During a chaotic Saturday that was intended as the final meeting of the 108th Congress, negotiators announced a compromise on the intelligence bill. Hours later, opposition from the Republican chairmen of two committees stymied the legislation, which would create a national intelligence director.

Reflecting Pentagon concerns about the legislation, California Rep. Duncan Hunter of the House Armed Services warned that the bill could interfere with the military chain of command and endanger troops in the field. Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner of the House Judiciary Committee demanded that the bill deal with illegal immigration.

Congress did manage to pass a 3,000-page, $388 billion spending bill that covers most nondefense and non-security programs for the budget year that began Oct. 1.

But there will be a delay in getting President Bush's signature. The hang-up is because of a single line in the bill that would have given two committee chairmen and their assistants access to people's income tax returns.

The Senate approved a resolution nullifying the idea; House leaders promised to pass it on Wednesday. Then, the spending bill will head to the White House.

"I have no earthly idea how it got in there," Frist said on "Fox News Sunday." "But, obviously, somebody is going to know, and accountability will be carried out."

Frist referred to the bill Saturday night as the "Istook amendment," and congressional aides said it was inserted at the request of Rep. Ernest Istook Jr., R-Okla.

Istook, chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, said in a statement Sunday that the Internal Revenue Service drafted the language, which would not have allowed any inspections of tax returns. "Nobody's privacy was ever jeopardized," the statement said.

Congress had worked for three months on legislation that carries out the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission for a director of national intelligence and a national counterterrorism center.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, traveling with Bush in Chile, said Sunday that it "remains a high priority for the president. ... He will continue to talk to congressional leaders about how to get it done as soon as possible."

The legislation has met resistance from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other Pentagon leaders who do not want to cede control of the intelligence budget. The Pentagon now controls roughly 80 percent of the estimated $40 billion spent on intelligence each year.

"It's well-known that the secretary of defense wasn't enthusiastic about this loss of budget authority," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Remember, most of our fiercest debates in Washington comes down to who controls the money."

McCain said Pentagon obstruction of legislation backed by the president was "one of the more Byzantine kind of scenarios that I have observed in the years that I have been in Congress."

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, said it was a "false claim" that the bill would endanger the relationship between intelligence agencies and the military.

While acknowledging opposition from the Pentagon, Roberts also said some has come from the White House "despite what the president has said."

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Jane Harman of California, said it was unfortunate the commander in chief "couldn't get the secretary of defense to stop his opposition, which has been ongoing for months, and which emboldened some of these House folks to dig in."

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate's No. 2-ranked Republican, told ABC's "This Week" there was still a "pretty good chance" of an agreement when Congress returns on Dec. 6.

Without a deal, lawmakers must restart the legislative process when the 109th Congress convenes in January.

The $388 billion spending bill, a compendium of nine bills that Republicans found too contentious to pass before the Nov. 2 election, was one of the leanest in years.

The administration tried to confront rising budget deficits while pouring more money into defense and homeland security. When foreign aid and defense spending are omitted, the remaining domestic programs grew by about 1 percent.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the spending was inadequate to meet education, health care and environmental needs.

"If falls so far from meeting our investment obligations for the future that it could only be brought to the floor by the majority party after the election," he said.

But Bush, in a statement, said the legislation met the limits he and Congress had set and "still adequately funded our domestic priorities like education, health care, and veterans programs."

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