House Republican leaders vowed yesterday to work with senators to restructure the nation's intelligence operations this fall, a shift in emphasis after weeks of comments and actions that often stressed the House's differences with the Senate.
The two chambers still have many contentious issues to resolve, but the House overture appeared to surprise and please senators, members of the Sept. 11 commission and relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some of them privately had complained that the House seemed uninterested in compromise, a perception House GOP leaders appeared eager to dispel yesterday.
Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, showed up at a late-morning news conference hosted by the co-sponsors of a bipartisan Senate bill to create a national intelligence director and national counterterrorism center. Hoekstra cited no specific compromises the House was ready to make in its 335-page bill, which several committees will take up today. But his presence suggested a shift in tone for a GOP leadership that often dismisses Senate efforts to achieve bipartisan accord and shows distaste for compromise.
"We have a tremendous amount in common," Hoekstra said of the House bill -- scheduled to reach the full chamber next week -- and the Senate bill, which senators began amending yesterday. Before the Nov. 2 elections, he said, "we are going to have a final piece of legislation that will make it to the president's desk that will have the strong endorsement of the 9/11 commission, [and] will have the strong endorsement of the [victims'] families."
Noting that the House bill includes many law enforcement and immigration control provisions absent from the Senate bill, Hoekstra said: "Their bill may grow a little; our bill may shrink a little."
Former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, said at the news conference that "the best news I've had in recent days" was seeing Hoekstra at the event. Hamilton praised the leaders of both chambers but said the commissioners believe the Senate bill "is the right vehicle for legislation."
Both bills call for a national intelligence director and counterterrorism center, two cornerstone recommendations of the commission, whose 567-page report issued in July remains a bestseller. But they differ in many areas that eventually must be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee if the legislation is to become law.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), would give the intelligence director more authority over spending and personnel than would the House measure, which would keep more of that authority in the Pentagon. The House bill also would make it easier for federal agents to deport immigrants and to track terror suspects under circumstances that some civil liberties groups say are unwise and unwarranted.
Although there are signs of an emerging consensus over the legislation, the two senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), have indicated strong concern about the proposed intelligence reform. A senior Senate aide said that Stevens and Byrd were closely watching deliberations over the legislation but have "no idea where the Senate is headed."
Meanwhile, the White House raised several objections to the Senate bill. A two-page "statement of administration policy" said the bill would "construct a cumbersome new bureaucracy in the Office of the [intelligence director] and in the Executive Office of the President with overlapping authorities"; improperly "attempt to define" programs to be included in the National Intelligence Program; unwisely merge the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council; and "require the president to select a single department or agency to conduct all security clearance investigations." The White House statement objected to the Senate proposal to declassify the amount of money spent on intelligence operations. The Sept. 11 commission recommended the declassification, but the House bill rejects it.
A former senior White House official has also sharply criticized the commission's proposals included in the Senate bill.
"I think there's a real potential to do more harm than good in this legislation," Richard A. Falkenrath, former deputy homeland security adviser to President Bush, told a public meeting of the Brookings Institution last week. He left the White House in May and is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"The commission's limited understanding and assessment of the present organization of performance of the Executive Branch raises doubts in my mind about whether they really know what problem they're trying to solve today," Falkenrath said.