Senators seek compromise bill to boost IG independence

As a CIA plan to investigate its inspector general draws congressional fire, a group of senators is working to quickly complete a compromise version of a bill to increase the independence of agency watchdogs.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, along with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and possibly Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., plan in coming weeks to jointly file an IG bill that responds to White House objections to a bill previously introduced by McCaskill, according to staffers.

McCaskill aides said they hope to complete the bill in the next few weeks so the committee can hold a markup before the Thanksgiving recess. The House passed a similar bill with a veto-proof majority.

Efforts to strengthen inspectors general have gained attention because of a series of recent controversies involving IGs.

Last week, reports that CIA Director Michael Hayden ordered an unusual internal inquiry into the office of CIA IG John Helgerson drew bipartisan criticism. The review will focus particularly on Helgerson's fairness in investigations of terrorist detention and interrogation programs that rankled agency insiders, reports said.

Lawmakers including McCaskill, Senate Intelligence ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have suggested the CIA is attempting to suppress an independent critic. The CIA investigation "underlines the importance of any law that would guarantee the importance of IGs," a McCaskill aide said. She noted the pending bill makes permanent an existing council that independently investigates accusations against IGs.

The new bill will not include a provision that allows IGs to send their budgets directly to Congress, aides said. That provision was in McCaskill's original bill to address concerns that some agency heads have tried to control IGs through budget cuts.

But in a Statement of Administration Policy that threatened a veto of the House bill, the White House and Office of Management and Budget said the language infringed on executive control of budget requests.

McCaskill aides said the bill will still protect independence by requiring that agency budgets note the difference between IG budget requests and the one granted. It will likely also contain language requiring that IGs inform Congress if a budget cut hampers their ability to function.

Committee members are also working on expanding the reasons for which IGs can be fired, in an effort to address White House concerns that a provision on firing would make it too hard to remove IGs even for good reason. The House bill passed with amendments that make similar changes to those planned for the Senate measure.

The statement of policy also objected to language codifying an IG council that now exists under executive orders. But the House did not address that concern and staffers said the new Senate bill will not.

"The administration is just going to have to live with that council," a staffer working on the bill said.

An OMB spokeswoman would not say if the intended changes resolve White House concerns, but said, "We're continuing our discussions with Congress and are hopeful we can resolve differences."

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