The House voted yesterday to retool the nation's intelligence structure and immigration policies, creating the widely supported position of intelligence director while adopting contentious provisions that would make it easier to detain and deport illegal immigrants.
The 282 to 134 vote follows action in the Senate earlier this week approving a new national director and counterterrorism center to coordinate the nation's 15 intelligence-gathering agencies and anti-terrorism strategies. Those were top priorities of the commission that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a panel that spurred Congress to action with a hard-hitting report in July.
But the House and Senate versions of the intelligence reform legislation differ in many significant ways, and the two chambers must work out their differences before a final bill can emerge. The bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate on Wednesday omits many House immigration and law enforcement provisions that prompted sharp debates.
If a handful of House and Senate negotiators can resolve all differences in the two extensive bills, the House and Senate will send a unified measure to President Bush for his signature, perhaps a few days before the Nov. 2 election.
The vote came as lawmakers struggled to complete work on a broad range of issues, including corporate tax cuts, homeland security spending, and drought and hurricane relief. Lawmakers had hoped to adjourn by the weekend and return home to campaign. But conflict in the Senate over the tax cut and a buyout for tobacco producers may force Congress to continue working well into next week.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) voiced optimism that the differences the two intelligence measures can be overcome.
"It is no surprise that the House and Senate have passed different bills," the two said in a joint statement. "They are different institutions. But there is much in common with these bills, and we believe that we can reconcile the differences quickly yet responsibly."
Several lawmakers, however, said it was unclear whether senators and House members can reconcile the two bills, given their many differences and the recent days of tough rhetoric, especially from House Republican leaders, suggesting little willingness to compromise.
"Some say that the real goal of the Republican leadership" is to produce a bill "that cannot be reconciled with the Senate bill before the election," Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said shortly before the House rejected, 223 to 193, her bid to substitute the Senate language for the House bill. The leaders of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission have signaled they prefer the Senate version, while critiquing the House bill in diplomatic terms. The Senate bill passed 96 to 2, with all Republicans backing it.
Both House and Senate bills would create a national intelligence director to coordinate the activities of the CIA and several other intelligence agencies throughout the government. The Senate bill would authorize the director to "determine the annual budget" for intelligence agencies and to "control and manage" their accounts. The House bill would permit the director only to "develop and present to the president" a budget plan for the agencies.
Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill would declassify the annual amount spent on intelligence and create a civil liberties board to safeguard individuals' rights as the nation combats terrorism.
Yesterday's sharpest House debate focused on a provision that would have allowed the government to deport alien criminals and terror suspects to nations that might torture them. Many such suspects, backers said, have been released in the United States because a court ruling bars their deportation or long-term incarceration. The House amended the provision to allow the secretary of homeland security to detain such suspects indefinitely.
House members clashed on another question of expedited deportations. Current law allows agents to quickly deport illegal immigrants, without a judge's review, if they have been in this nation less than two years. The House bill would make the cutoff five years, expanding the pool of immigrants subject to such expedited deportations.
On the House bill's final passage, 213 Republicans and 69 Democrats voted aye, while eight Republicans, 125 Democrats and one independent voted no. Washington area lawmakers voting for the bill were Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) and Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). Voting against it were Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.).
The House bill postpones action on another major recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission: Revamping congressional oversight of intelligence. The Senate is weighing the issue, but efforts stalled yesterday because of a bitter fight -- and stubborn deadlock -- over unrelated issues such as disaster relief and tobacco regulation.
As of late yesterday, exasperated lawmakers were preparing for a rare weekend session and the possibility of remaining in session into next week.
Among those who moved to block action were Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is angry over Republican plans to pay for disaster relief by slashing a farm conservation program he has championed, and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who are demanding Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco as part of the buyout program.
Later, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) complaining about an extension of dairy subsidies opposed by western lawmakers, said the dairy dispute could prolong the session beyond Monday or Tuesday.
The approaching elections appeared to sharpen the divisions, with Republicans accusing Democrats of "obstructionist" tactics and Democrats accusing Republicans of pursuing a "special interest agenda" that thwarted bipartisan cooperation on key issues.
Before work stopped on the oversight plan, the Senate whittled away at the jurisdiction of a proposed new Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee by voting to leave some of the biggest components of the Department of Homeland Security under control of other committees. It has approved some strengthening of the select intelligence committee but rejected a recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission that it be given control over spending as well as policy for intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, congressional negotiators on the 2005 defense authorization bill agreed to increase troop strength for the Army and Marines and push ahead with next year's round of military base closings. The bill is slated for approval by both chambers before Congress leaves for the elections.