House Republican leaders yesterday backed off a controversial proposal to allow deportation of foreign terrorism suspects to countries that practice torture, as lawmakers struggled to complete legislation to restructure the nation's intelligence operations.
Instead of the deportation proposal, GOP aides said the leadership was supporting an alternative to allow indefinite detention of such suspects in this country, without recourse to federal courts, at the discretion of the secretary of homeland security. The idea, the aides said, was to keep potentially dangerous noncitizens who are suspected of having links to terrorist groups from returning to American society at large just because they could not be deported as a result of torture practices in their home countries.
The deportation proposal had drawn complaints from senior Republicans as well as many Democrats and drew a strong objection yesterday from the Bush administration, which pledged in a policy statement to work with Congress on other ways to deal with terror suspects who cannot be deported because of torture concerns.
The Bush administration "remains committed to upholding the United States' obligations" under an international convention against torture and "does not expel, return or extradite individuals to countries where the United States believes it is more likely than not they will be tortured," the White House said in a policy statement.
The House planned to vote on the detention alternative, sponsored by Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.), before completing action on its version of the intelligence legislation, probably today.
The bill on track for passage in the House differs significantly from a separate version approved overwhelmingly by the Senate on Wednesday, setting the stage for potentially difficult negotiations to reach a compromise that House and Senate leaders hope to enact before the Nov. 2 elections. Both chambers hope to recess today for the elections but may return for a final vote on the intelligence legislation before the elections if a House-Senate agreement is reached by then.
Both measures would create a powerful new national intelligence director and a counterterrorism center to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts. But there are also substantial differences, including controversial law enforcement and immigration provisions included in the House bill but not the Senate version.
The administration has spoken favorably of key elements of both bills, with some reservations, and has not indicated a preference. It pledged again yesterday to work with the House and Senate negotiators to reach a compromise, an involvement that some leadership sources have said is essential to reaching a pre-election deal.
The Sept. 11 commission, whose findings gave rise to the legislative drive for intelligence reforms, has indicated it favors the Senate version.
As the House debated its version of the intelligence bill, the Senate took up rules changes aimed at meeting another goal of the 9/11 panel: streamlining and strengthening Congress's own intelligence and homeland security oversight operations, which the commission described as "dysfunctional."
Key Republican and Democratic senators proposed several changes, including beefing up the Select Committee on Intelligence, expanding the Governmental Affairs Committee to include all homeland security operations and creation of an appropriations subcommittee to consider all intelligence funding.
But this was a step back from the commission's recommendation that the intelligence panel be given authority over spending as well as policy, effectively removing intelligence funding from control of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attempted yesterday -- without success -- to carry out the commission's recommendation and give the intelligence committee control over intelligence spending. The Senate rejected his proposal, 74 to 23.
During debate, McCain argued that congressional oversight would remain "dysfunctional" unless the intelligence committee is given appropriating authority.
"Power resides in the purse," he said.
But Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said consolidating all power in one committee will not improve oversight and cautioned that funding for intelligence is likely to be decreased rather than increased if funding authority is taken away from the appropriations panel.
The House has not yet come up with a plan for reorganizing its intelligence and security oversight operations but plans to do so before Congress convenes next year, according to senior GOP aides.