Lawmakers yesterday abandoned efforts to pass legislation restructuring the U.S. intelligence system before Tuesday's election, with some warning that it may be impossible to reach an agreement even in time for a lame-duck session in mid-November, according to lawmakers and staff members.
The four chief House and Senate negotiators failed once again to reach agreement on the extent of budget powers to grant to a new national intelligence director, as part of a major reorganization of the intelligence community. Although both sides vowed to keep talks going, there no longer was a sense of urgency to complete their work before the election, as the White House and congressional leaders had vowed to do after the commission that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks released its report and recommendations this summer.
The leaders of the Sept. 11 commission, former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R) and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), have been pushing for quick legislative action, aided by public support from the families of victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Some relatives of victims, furious over the impasse, said President Bush and House Republicans who have pushed for controversial additions to the commission's recommendations would be blamed by voters for the failure to achieve a compromise.
Commission member Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), also a former representative, said the effort "looks to be as dead as a doornail."
"The people holding the hammer are the president and a few House Republicans," he said.
But some analysts concluded that Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, do not see the impasse as a major issue in their campaigns, despite previous calls for swift action to strengthen the nation's intelligence-gathering apparatus and reduce the likelihood of another terrorist attack.
Political scientist James A. Thurber said yesterday that Bush could have broken the impasse and forced a compromise with a phone call to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Bush's failure to do so, he said, indicates that the White House does not see the issue as being vital to his reelection bid.
"The president has been disengaged from efforts on the Hill, especially in the last three weeks," said Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "He may be listening to people from the Department of Defense, and in the end he wants it both ways"; that is, being seen as working for a bill but not pushing so hard as to cause waves in the Pentagon.
The talks involved competing 500-page bills drafted in response to dozens of recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. Commission leaders and victims' families favor the Senate bill over the House version, which contains a number of controversial intelligence issues as well as changes to immigration laws. The stalemate stems in part from a turf war over control of the intelligence budget, with advocates of the Pentagon attempting to retain control over $40 billion of annual intelligence spending.
The four chief House and Senate conferees intend to resume discussions today on the House's controversial immigration and law enforcement provisions. On Friday, a nationwide conference call will allow the leaders of the conference committee -- Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) -- to bring the remaining House and Senate conferees up to date .
While the four lead conferees issued a statement saying they had made some progress, Senate and House aides said late yesterday that tentative agreements reached earlier on budget authority for the national intelligence director had been reconsidered by the House Republicans. "We were pushed back to where we were last week," a senior Senate aide said.
That triggered a statement from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), calling the conference "a failure."
A sidelight to the negotiations, which some Senate aides say triggered the renewed Republican intransigence, was an unsolicited memo supporting the House proposed budget compromise that was written by Philip D. Zelikow, the Sept. 11 commission's executive director. The memo, received last Saturday afternoon by the conferees, "shocked" Kean and Hamilton and angered the Senate bill's supporters, according to a source participating in the conference.
Both Hamilton and Kean said Monday that they still supported the Senate position on budget authority but described the House proposal as moving toward compromise. Meanwhile, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and quarterback for the pro-Pentagon conferees, has helped publicize the Zelikow memo as a backup for his position.
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.