House-Senate negotiators, trying to resolve differences in bills to restructure the nation's intelligence community, announced minimal progress yesterday and conceded it will be difficult to complete the task before the Nov. 2 elections.
House Republicans late in the afternoon delivered a compromise offer to Senate conferees and House Democrats.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), head of the Senate negotiating team, said in a telephone interview from her home state that the House GOP proposals will be discussed this afternoon by Senate conferees and a counterproposal will be drafted.
She also said there was agreement that negotiations should first focus on getting agreement on the new national intelligence director (NID) and a national counterterrorism center before taking on other issues, including the House Republicans' controversial immigration proposals.
At a meeting with reporters yesterday afternoon, the conference chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), said House and Senate leaders probably have until Monday to summon the nation's lawmakers back to Washington in time to pass a bill before the election.
That would require a dramatic breakthrough in negotiations over the competing 500-page bills, after a slow start to the talks. With no plans to meet over the weekend, the House-Senate conferees offered little concrete hope for prompt enactment of a law to reshape the government's approach to intelligence and anti-terrorism efforts, the top priority of the Sept. 11 commission report released in July.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), one of the chief negotiators, told reporters yesterday that although she remains hopeful, "the clock is running out to get action before the election" and that " I also am pessimistic that after the election we will have the momentum we have now."
Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), another conferee, said that "there's still a chance" for a bill before Nov. 2 "but the chance is beginning to be fleeting."
At the afternoon Capitol news conference that included Harman and the conference committee's top two senators, Hoekstra, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that "we still have some very contentious issues" to resolve.
The conferees said the first major sticking point involves the degree of control the intelligence director would have over determining the budgets of Pentagon intelligence-collecting agencies and how that money is spent.
Under the Senate bill, the new director would determine the annual budgets for these intelligence-gathering agencies and manage the budgets' execution. The House bill would make the director's budgetary powers more advisory to the defense secretary in the case of agencies housed in the Pentagon.
House Democrats have embraced the Senate version, as have members of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission.
House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who is a conferee, is heading the effort to modify the Senate's language on the director's authority when it comes to the budgets of the three major intelligence-collecting agencies. They are the National Security Agency (NSA), which intercepts electronic communications); the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which develops and operates intelligence satellites; and the National Geo-Spatial Agency (NGA), which does imagery analysis and mapmaking.
Armed with a letter received yesterday from Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hunter is saying the defense secretary must keep control over the budgets of the NSA, NRO and NGA because the intelligence they collect has direct military value to the war fighter.
But the CIA director, in his role as director of central intelligence (DCI), uses these agencies to collect national intelligence used for policymaking and the covert war on terrorism, and therefore as DCI he has a say in their budgets.
Saying he wants to "protect the lifeline" through which the intelligence from these agencies' satellites reaches troops on the ground, Hunter is arguing that the Senate language must be changed.
In addition to developing the budgets, he wants the money approved for those agencies to flow back down through the intelligence director to the defense secretary, who would continue to have control over the "execution" of intelligence programs.
"It has to stay within the chain of command," Hunter said in a interview yesterday. "You can't have the NID directing a Pentagon agency's operation without it going back through the [military] chain of command."
In his letter, Myers said it is "critical" that the "budgets of the combat support agencies should come up from the agencies through the Secretary of Defense to the National Intelligence Director." And, he added, "it is likewise important that the [funds] are passed from the National Intelligence Director through the Department to the combat support agencies."
Hunter said, "I think we are making progress," adding that the compromises in the Republican proposal should be acceptable to the Senate.