Creation of a national intelligence director who would wield broader powers than the CIA chief enjoys -- a key recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission -- drew close to fruition yesterday as House Republican leaders signaled they will join Senate leaders and the White House in embracing the idea.
But President Bush and House leaders favor narrower budgetary and planning powers for the director, possibly setting up a clash next month with senators and commission supporters.
For weeks, House GOP leaders had stressed their independent approach to the commission's recommendations. They said they had plenty of experts within their chamber and ridiculed Democrats who suggested that the commission's approximately 40 proposals should be enacted with few questions.
But yesterday -- one day after the White House submitted language calling for the national intelligence director and other government changes -- Majority Leader Tom DeLay's spokesman, Stuart Roy, said the House will introduce a bill next week that "will largely track the president's proposal."
Plenty of issues remain unresolved. Powerful lawmakers are resisting the commission's main recommendations to revamp congressional oversight of intelligence and security matters. Bush and House leaders oppose the panel's call for disclosing how much the government spends on intelligence efforts.
With the House and Senate moving on separate paths, and a proposed adjournment three weeks away, lawmakers yesterday said it is unclear how many proposals might be enacted before the Nov. 2 elections. Democrats, especially in the House, have accused Republicans of resisting the commission's work at nearly every step.
A bipartisan Senate bill introduced Wednesday generally tracks the commission's proposals in several areas, including the creation of an intelligence director with authority over budgets and personnel for much of the nation's intelligence community. The White House on Thursday sent lawmakers 23 pages of proposed legislative language that also embraces a national intelligence director, albeit with somewhat narrower powers.
For example, the White House plan would continue funneling most intelligence funding through the Pentagon, whereas the Senate bill would send such funds to the intelligence director unless they are designated for the military, according to a GOP staff analysis.
The Senate bill would authorize the proposed national counterterrorism center to prepare plans for, but not directly implement, multi-agency operations to fight terrorism, according to the analysis. The White House plan would limit the center to strategic, not operational, planning.
The White House, backed by House leaders, also wants to keep classified the amount that the government spends on intelligence operations. That number -- frequently estimated at about $40 billion annually in news accounts -- should be made public, according to the Sept. 11 commission and the Senate bill, which is sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Their bill also would authorize the intelligence director to establish "national intelligence centers" to "integrate capabilities from across the intelligence community." The White House's plan would not.
"The administration's bill is not as comprehensive as the proposal we have already announced," Collins and Lieberman said in a statement, "but it nevertheless helps to maintain momentum toward getting comprehensive intelligence reform accomplished this year."
Neither chamber has acted on another major commission recommendation: revamping congressional oversight of intelligence and anti-terrorism operations. House GOP leadership aides, speaking on background yesterday because their bosses have not announced final decisions, said there is heavy resistance to each of the commission's chief proposals in that area.
One proposal is to combine the Senate and House intelligence committees into one panel. Other proposals would make membership in the intelligence committees permanent, not term-limited; reduce the size of the committees; and give the committees both authorizing and appropriating powers. Authorization and appropriations are handled by separate committees, which guard their turf zealously.
House leaders, a well-placed aide said, believe it is better "to democratize the oversight process than to concentrate it in a few people's hands." In the Senate, a bipartisan, 22-member task force is weighing recommendations for revamping legislative oversight, which the Sept. 11 commission portrayed as highly important.
The unresolved issues notwithstanding, this week's momentum for creating a national intelligence director and counterterrorism center marks a significant leap in the commission's fortunes. When the panel released a 567-page report in July, Bush committed to no timetable for considering its many recommendations, and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) agreed only to hold hearings "over the next several months."
Pressured by commission members, Democrats and others, however, Congress held hearings throughout August and began drafting legislation to reshape the executive branch's intelligence-related operations, though not those of Congress. Now the House, Senate and White House are negotiating at the margins, not the heart, of the commission's call for a national intelligence director and counterterrorism center.