Lame-duck session last-ditch effort for intelligence reform this year

Sen. Susan Collins lobbies the White House behind the scenes in hopes of moving the measure forward.

If the repeated death metaphors are any indication, the prospects for intelligence reform this year are bleak.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, led the post-election effort this week to reinvigorate negotiations between the House and Senate, or, as she put it, "to move the talks off dead center," only to be "disappointed" when House leadership, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., immediately rejected her proposal. Meanwhile, another strong proponent of reform, former Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer, who served on the 9/11 commission, says, "I think it's do or die right now."

Reform advocates such as Collins and Roemer say the person who can save it is President Bush. And, they say, the lame-duck session of Congress slated to begin and end next week is Bush's best -- and, perhaps, last -- opportunity to make good on his word, which he repeated at his victory press conference, to create a national intelligence director responsible for the 15-agency "intelligence community."

The push for reform didn't start out this way. When the 9/11 commission submitted its final report in late July, Congress was embarrassed into working through its August vacation on the commission's top two recommendations: create a national intelligence director with total control over the budgets of the 15 agencies, and establish a national counter-terrorism center with responsibility for planning and implementing counter-terrorism policy. By September, the Senate and House each had drafted bills. Along with Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Collins led the Senate charge from her perch as chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, while Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., ran the show in the House.

But the Senate addressed only the 9/11 commission's recommendations for a national intelligence director and a national counter-terrorism center, while the House wrote a much larger, and more controversial, package of anti-terrorism measures. And as the Senate pushed for public disclosure of the annual total intelligence budget, so that the intelligence director could have control, the House's version aimed to keep the budget a secret and to continue to funnel much of the money through the Pentagon. When the House and Senate passed their wildly differing bills, they locked horns.

Senate aides in both parties complain that the White House failed to put sufficient pressure on Congress to get a bill passed before the election. Though the White House said in a letter on October 18 that it preferred the Senate bill's stronger budget authority, one Senate aide said the administration sent its legislative team rather than its security team -- or Chief of Staff Andy Card -- to conference negotiations on the Hill. Had there been direct intervention by the president or more personal involvement by Card (more than just phone calls), Senate aides say that the White House could have persuaded Hunter and his Pentagon allies to buy into the Senate bill.

Three compromise proposals went nowhere. In what Collins calls a "good-faith offer," she and Lieberman submitted on November 8 a new proposal with three pages' worth of concessions, which included, most significantly, allowing the total intelligence budget to remain classified and letting the Pentagon retain some authority over it. Although the Senate has signaled a strong willingness to compromise, Lieberman says there are limits. "For me, the threshold is, is what we end up with not just marginally better but significantly better than the status quo? ... It's going to take compromise on all sides."

But the House has stood firm. "We're not going to accept their first comprehensive offer," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "We're happy they've made some progress." Feehery put the likelihood of a compromise next week at 60 percent.

Collins shies away from handicapping. "I still hope that we can produce a bill for consideration in the lame-duck," she said. "I wish I could give you a better sense of what's going to happen, but I can't. I just don't know whether the House is going to remain rigid."

But Collins is lobbying the White House behind the scenes. Earlier this week, she asked National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to get the White House, as she put it, "more fully involved." Roemer and his commission colleagues have also been asking the White House to turn up the heat.

Yet the word from sources close to the White House is that the administration's plan is to take one last pass at a compromise for the lame-duck session. "I don't think that the differences that remain are fundamental," said one senior White House official. But there's no guarantee the White House will push anew in January. Collins and Roemer were pessimistic about post-lame-duck prospects. "I think that other priorities will displace this one," Collins said.