The opening round of House-Senate negotiations meant to craft a bill restructuring the nation's intelligence community ended in discord yesterday as lawmakers disagreed on whether tougher immigration rules and a new civil liberties board should be part of the package.
The nearly three-hour public meeting culminated in partisan squabbling and offered few clues as to whether negotiators can resolve the many differences in time to reconvene Congress, vote on the measure and send it to President Bush before the Nov. 2 elections. Numerous advocates have said momentum and public pressure for action will subside after the elections. Negotiators plan to meet again today.
Both chambers generally agree on the need to create a national intelligence director and a counterterrorism center in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but they differ on how much power to give the director. More problematic, they also differ on whether to expand government powers to easily deport foreign suspects and to conduct surveillance on citizens and noncitizens.
In their first gathering, 17 members of the House-Senate conference committee gave speeches that outlined key differences in the two competing bills, each more than 500 pages. Several touted the need for a civil liberties board to safeguard citizens' privacy and rights in the face of enhanced government surveillance in the hunt for terrorists.
"We would be handing the terrorists a victory if we compromise the very freedoms that define us as Americans," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), head of the Senate delegation.
Supporting her position is the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission, which goaded Congress into action with its hard-hitting July report on government deficiencies in intelligence and anti-terrorism efforts. A civil liberties board is vital and its members "must be Senate-confirmed" and "have strong investigative powers," said a four-page letter sent to the negotiators yesterday by the commission's top members -- former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R) and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).
The House and the Bush administration oppose the plan. They note that Bush has created a civil liberties board in the executive branch. But senators and the Sept. 11 commissioners say that board's members have little independence or power.
House negotiators, meanwhile, strongly defended several measures in their bill that would enhance border-control efforts and make it easier to deport certain categories of immigrants with little or no review by a judge. "These are not extraneous provisions," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.). "They are vital."
The conference committee's chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), surprised senators and House Democrats by announcing plans to offer "a good-faith global effort" to begin reaching compromises on key points. House Republicans and White House advisers were putting final touches on the plan, he said, prompting an outcry from Democrats in both chambers.
"I would question the usefulness of a Republican House product introduced this late in the process," said Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the conference committee's top House Democrat.
Hoekstra agreed to start outlining his plan in closed meetings with Harman, Collins and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). Yesterday evening, aides to those lawmakers said little progress had been made.
Some senators urged conferees to use the Kean-Hamilton letter as a guideline for resolving differences on intelligence matters. The letter said the new national intelligence director "must have authority to approve and submit a unified budget for national intelligence . . . and a significant role in determining the budgets for intelligence agencies" in the Department of Defense. The director also "must have full authority over the non-military personnel in the intelligence community," the letter said. Those recommendations track more closely with the Senate bill than the House bill.
Negotiations on other matters may prove more difficult. The Kean-Hamilton letter said, "We believe strongly that this bill is not the right occasion for tackling controversial immigration and law enforcement issues that go well beyond the commission's recommendations."
But the White House has endorsed some provisions in the House bill. They include recommendations to limit the judicial appeal options of people facing deportation; to make visa revocation automatic grounds for being deported; and to give the secretary of homeland security the power to detain foreign suspects indefinitely under various circumstances.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) urged his fellow conferees to deal only with intelligence issues, leaving contentious questions of immigration and law enforcement to the next Congress. "That's the big question of the will of the conference," he said.
Sensenbrenner said, however, "history will judge us poorly if we miss this opportunity" to give agents new weapons to track, detain and deport terrorism suspects.