Key senators of both parties yesterday proposed several steps to strengthen Senate oversight of intelligence and homeland security operations but stopped short of one of the most far-reaching recommendations for congressional reform made by the Sept. 11 commission.
The proposals were unveiled for action by the full Senate later this week as both houses moved toward approval of separate bills to restructure intelligence operations within the executive branch before Congress recesses at the end of the week for the elections.
The oversight initiatives, outlined by Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who headed a 22-member task force on reorganization of Senate anti-terrorism oversight, included a beefed-up role for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and reconstitution of the Governmental Affairs Committee to include homeland security.
Under their proposals, the intelligence panel's current term limits of eight years would be abolished and an intelligence oversight subcommittee would be created. The full committee would be reduced in size from 17 to 15 members, and the Senate's majority party would be barred from having more than a one-vote majority on the panel to help ensure its bipartisanship. In addition, a new Appropriations subcommittee would be created to handle intelligence financing.
The combined Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee would have responsibility for activities now within the jurisdiction of nine other committees, and the Governmental Affairs Committee will relinquish some responsibilities to other panels.
While approving most of the Sept. 11 commission's proposals, McConnell and Reid did not embrace the biggest and most controversial proposal: to create a joint House-Senate intelligence committee or set up separate committees with combined powers to set policy and appropriate funds.
"Tinkering with the existing structure is not sufficient," the commission said in recommending these and other changes to what it described as a "dysfunctional" system of congressional oversight of intelligence. Other major reforms, including creation of a national intelligence director and a counterterrorism center, "will not change if congressional oversight does not change too," the commission said.
But the proposal to add the power of the purse to the intelligence committee's existing policy responsibilities ran into stiff opposition from some of the Senate's most powerful members, especially those who sit on the Appropriations Committee.
In defense of the senators' recommendation to keep financing authority for intelligence under control of appropriators, Reid quoted commission chairman Thomas H. Kean as saying he thought creation of an Appropriations subcommittee on intelligence would be within the spirit of the commission's recommendations.
"If you're on a football field, maybe this gets you to 90 yards down the field," Reid added. "This is really quite significant."
But, at a news conference shortly before the McConnell-Reid proposals were announced, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accused appropriators of "trying to protect their turf" and added: "If we do not give this new permanent intelligence committee the appropriation authority that they need, then there will be no reform and a vital part of the 9/11 commission recommendations will be neutered."
McConnell and Reid said they expect McCain to offer an amendment to give funding authority to the intelligence panel when the Senate considers the oversight proposals, most likely after completion of action on the executive branch reorganization bill tomorrow or Thursday.
House leaders are working on oversight proposals for their chamber and plan to be ready for action before the next Congress convenes in January, said John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
As the Senate continued work on the executive branch measure, it rejected efforts by some of its most senior and powerful members -- including Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and ranking minority member Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) -- to reverse some of the commission's key proposals.
A proposal by Byrd to eliminate the budgetary powers recommended by the commission for the new intelligence director was defeated 62 to 29. A proposal by Stevens to drop the commission's recommendation for public disclosure of the intelligence budget was rejected 55 to 37.