Members of the Sept. 11 commission called on House leaders yesterday to drop controversial proposals regarding immigration and law enforcement power, saying they could sink Congress's efforts to revamp the nation's intelligence operations this fall.
In the strongest signal yet that they prefer the Senate's approach to key recommendations from the report they issued in July, the commissioners also insisted that a proposed national intelligence director have clear budgetary and administrative control of Defense Department intelligence-gathering agencies. The House bill, scheduled for floor debate next week, leaves much of that power with the defense secretary.
Six of the commission's 10 members, including the chairman and vice chairman, spoke to reporters in the Capitol before meeting privately with lawmakers. The three Republicans and three Democrats urged congressional leaders to begin narrowing differences in the two chambers' proposals in order to send a bill to the president before adjournment this fall.
"The Senate bill is a giant step forward" and "the right vehicle for our recommendations" regarding the executive branch, said former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), the commission's chairman. He and his colleagues gave much fainter praise to the House bill, which includes dozens of provisions to boost federal powers to track or deport immigrants suspected of terrorist ties.
"The House bill contains a number of proposals that go significantly beyond the commission's recommendations," said former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), the commission's vice chairman. "We respectfully submit that consideration of controversial provisions at this late hour can harm our shared purpose in getting a good bill to the president before the 108th Congress adjourns."
It was unclear how receptive to compromise House leaders might be. Immediately after the news conference, John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), told reporters, "The stuff that will drag the bill down, we won't do." But later, after commissioners had met with Hastert's chief of staff, Feehery declined to say which provisions, if any, might be removed from the House's 335-page bill.
"Controversy is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "We're going to do the right thing" and produce a bill the president can sign.
Hamilton said items that should be dropped include "alien-removal provisions." The House bill contains several measures that would make it easier for the government to deport undocumented immigrants who have fallen under suspicion for various reasons. They include a broader application of "expedited removal" rules, higher barriers to obtaining asylum, and relaxed standards for sending foreigners to countries where they might be tortured. Civil liberties groups and some lawmakers have said the provisions could erode important constitutional protections.
Kean, meanwhile, spoke sharply against House provisions -- and proposed Senate amendments -- that would limit the national intelligence director's authority over spending and personnel decisions in agencies including the National Reconnaissance Office and National Security Agency. The House bill would keep more of that power in the Pentagon.
"This is not an area where one can compromise," Kean said. "If you're not going to create a strong national intelligence director, with powers both appointive and over the budget, don't do it."
Senators next week will continue debating amendments to the Senate bill sponsored by Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). A source close to the Sept. 11 commission, who asked not to be named because of delicate negotiations with lawmakers, predicted that the House will keep most of its bill's provisions intact throughout next week's floor debate and votes.
The commissioners' hope, the source said, is that House leaders will drop some of the most contentious provisions in the eventual House-Senate conference that will have to resolve all differences between the bills.