Passage of intel bill may rest on speedy accord, aides say
"The next couple of days will determine if there is consideration" of a bill, said one House GOP aide.
The top negotiators, led by House Intelligence Chairman Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., and including House Intelligence ranking member Jane Harman, D-Calif., Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Senate Governmental Affairs ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., are scheduled to meet Tuesday to continue their talks.
Over the weekend, the conference committee staff was able to make progress on the main sticking point -- the Senate's creation of a national intelligence director with full budgetary authority -- as well as the House's limits on the authority of an independent civil liberties board. One House GOP aide said the Senate came closer to the House on the NID's authority after House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who has been the Pentagon's leading advocate in negotiations, repeatedly refused to back down from his position that Congress should not disrupt the Defense secretary's current authority over funding of the Pentagon's intelligence assets.
House aides said a deal is possible if the Senate were to concede to the House's position on the NID's authority and other unrelated provisions. But Collins continues to walk a tight rope between wanting to enact a bill before the 108th Congress adjourns and responding to the 9/11 Commission and the 9/11 Families Steering Committee not to create a NID without strong authority. The commission and families plan another Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday to press for a bill more to their liking.
Collins met Monday with White House officials to discuss the differences between the House and Senate bills. "It was a useful meeting ... and we reviewed many of the outstanding issues in the bill," said Collins' spokeswoman, who added that the Bush administration invited her Sunday to with them. The White House has publicly agreed with the Senate's position that the NID should have "exclusive" budgetary authority over all intelligence activities, but the administration has failed to publicly clarify its position after Defense Department officials sided with Hunter and House Republicans.
Collins and House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., also were slated to talk Monday about House provisions establishing national standards for driver's licenses and birth certificates, said a House GOP aide. The aide said both sides remain far apart over the issues, but the two lawmakers hope to reach some common ground while negotiations continue on the rest of the bill. In an apparent effort to influence the Collins-Sensenbrenner talks, the American Civil Liberties Union and the libertarian Gun Owners of America, along with 40 other groups, placed an open letter in Monday's Washington Times asking conferees to remove the ID provisions.