Key lawmakers, family members of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and members of the commission that studied the attacks called on President Bush yesterday to break a deadlock in Congress that threatens to block passage of an intelligence reform package.
Lawmakers had hoped to complete work on legislation to reorganize the U.S. intelligence system in time for final action by Congress when it returns next week for a post-election session. But a dispute between the Senate and House Republican leaders over the budgetary powers of a new national intelligence director threatens to torpedo action this year. House Republican leaders and Pentagon officials are opposed to shifting control over the majority of intelligence spending from the secretary of defense to the new intelligence director, as the Senate version of the legislation would do.
"We believe that the president has the power to move this legislation forward and to override the Pentagon's influence in producing this stalemate," Carol Ashley, a member of the 9/11 Family Steering Committee, told reporters.
Her view was echoed by former congressman Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the Sept. 11 commission, who said he was "hopeful that the president of the United States will weigh in in a personal way with personal calls to the conferees and the leadership in the House and Senate and get this completed."
In a post-election news conference last week, Bush called on Congress "to pass an effective intelligence reform bill that I can sign into law." White House staff members have taken part in House-Senate negotiations over the two competing 500-page bills, but Bush has yet to get personally involved in the talks.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the chief Senate negotiator, said she had spoken to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and may appeal directly to the president if there is no progress by the time Congress returns Tuesday.
The leaders of the Sept. 11 commission and family members of victims strongly support the Senate version of the intelligence reforms. Bush's hesitancy to press the Senate measure may stem from intelligence reform actions already underway as a result of executive orders he signed in August that in effect authorized two of the main recommendations of the 9/11 commission and the House and Senate bills, according to congressional aides involved in the process.
The president at that time established a National Counterterrorism Center and gave increased budgetary and management authority over the 15 agencies in the U.S. intelligence community to the director of central intelligence (DCI). He also has said he would support legislation to turn the DCI into the national intelligence director with powers somewhat similar to those the 9/11 commission proposed
The revised DCI and the counterterrorism center set up by the president's orders more closely resemble the House legislation than the Senate measure.
For example, the DCI under the president's order can "determine" the budgets of Pentagon-based intelligence collection agencies. At the same time, the DCI can only "monitor" the spending of the money as it passes through the Defense Department to the Pentagon's intelligence agencies. One of the remaining disagreements on Capitol Hill is the House GOP rejection of the Senate proposal that gives the national intelligence director control over spending of funds passing through the Pentagon.