House and Senate lawmakers and aides are quietly trying to work out major differences between their versions of a bill authorizing programs and spending for the nation's intelligence agencies, including competing proposals for replacing spy satellites and outlining how Congress should be notified about covert programs.
But the House version of the fiscal 2010 intelligence authorization bill remains stalled, as it was abruptly pulled in early July from being brought to the floor for a vote after the White House threatened to veto it.
The veto threat was issued over language that would end a practice under which only the top Democrat and Republican on the House and Senate Intelligence committees are briefed about covert programs. Instead, the House committee wants to allow both panels to adopt procedures for such limited briefings, but would leave it to members of the panels to decide when and how that should occur.
The Senate bill includes a provision stipulating that if the administration tries to limit briefings on covert intelligence operations to only top congressional leaders, the president must also notify the full committee and provide all members with a description of the main features of the program or subject of the briefing.
The Senate approved its version of the intelligence authorization bill last month. But senior administration intelligence officials notified the Senate Intelligence Committee in writing that its language on congressional notification would also draw a veto.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, confirmed that his panel is discussing alternative language with the Senate committee. When asked if the goal is to come up with new language before bringing the House bill to the floor, he said, "It would be nice, but it's not necessary."
But a GOP aide said the Senate language is as far as Republicans are willing to go. The aide added that Democrats run the risk of turning bipartisan language into partisan language.
Another focal point of negotiations concerns replacing the nation's aging spy satellites, lawmakers and aides confirmed.
The House Intelligence Committee largely supported a plan put forward this year by the Obama administration called Imagery Way Ahead, under which the National Reconnaissance Office would buy and launch electro-optical satellites while buying more data from U.S. commercial satellite companies.
The Senate committee approved a different plan under which the government would buy more satellites that are cheaper and less sophisticated. But critics call the Senate plan untested and therefore riskier.
For now, congressional appropriators have added placeholder funding while a final agreement is negotiated, said one aide, who would not disclose the funding level.
"We're going to work with the appropriators," said Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo. "We'll see what comes out of that."
House Intelligence Technical and Tactical Intelligence Subcommittee Chairman C.A. (Dutch) Ruppersberger, D-Md., confirmed that his staff is working with the Senate to forge a final deal.
"If you're Tarzan and you're hanging onto a vine, before you go to the next vine you don't let go of this vine," he said. "I respect the fact that the Senate [Intelligence Committee] and their staff is looking ahead and understanding where we are and what we need."
"But the highest priority still is our national security and I believe that if you just go down the road with one plan that really is just beginning and hasn't totally been tested, that you don't give up what you have," Ruppersberger added. "We're the strongest in the world because of what we have; you build upon that."