House-Senate negotiators gave themselves a few more hours last night to try to reach a consensus -- and then win separate House and Senate votes -- on a massive and ambitious bill to reshape the government's intelligence community, an effort that began months ago.
With both chambers planning to complete the 108th Congress's work today, the bill's advocates acknowledged that time and hope were running short. Negotiators said they would work past midnight in an effort to put a reconciled bill, likely to run a few hundred pages, on the House and Senate floors sometime today. The 535 lawmakers then would have at most a few hours to digest the measure before voting yes or no and going home for the year.
If a bill does not pass, the effort will have to be started anew in the 109th Congress, which will convene in January.
As a sign of the measure's diminished prospects, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) did not mention it at 6:25 p.m., when he announced the Senate's expected workload today: a major spending bill for fiscal 2005 and the reauthorization of an education program for people with disabilities. Still, no congressional leader pronounced the intelligence bill dead, and some staffers said last-minute passage remained possible.
Congressional aides close to the negotiations said the sticking points were largely the same as those that have barred a reconciliation of the House and Senate bills since their passage several weeks ago. Lawmakers at midafternoon were still discussing the powers that a new national intelligence director should wield over intelligence-gathering agencies within the Defense Department, aides said.
A Senate Democratic source said House leaders presented "a page of 14 items they thought were still unresolved," including the guidelines for issuing driver's licenses to immigrants.
Despite those disagreements, the House-Senate conferees have settled a great majority of issues involving the restructuring of the intelligence community, the legislation's main focus. The new chief intelligence adviser to the president, who would run all 15 agencies that make up the intelligence community, would be called the director of national intelligence (DNI), instead of the national intelligence director.
Intelligence community funding, said to exceed $40 billion a year, would remain secret, hidden in the Pentagon budget. The DNI would determine the budgets for intelligence collection and analysis, other than in the tactical military areas, including the work of three Pentagon-based agencies. And under a provision drafted by the White House's Office of Management and Budget, the funds for those three agencies -- the National Security Agency (which collects electronic intelligence), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (which analyzes imagery) and the National Reconnaissance Office (which builds and operates intelligence satellites) -- would "be protected" from being siphoned off by the defense secretary.
The control of this money has been a particular sticking point. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) remains concerned that the plan could harm military operations and interfere with the chain of command. Hunter has not completely agreed with the proposal, according to House and Senate staff members.
Although the new DNI could not at the same time run the CIA, as the current director of central intelligence does, the legislation must still clarify the DNI's relationship with the CIA director. Under the House bill, the DNI would "control" the CIA; under the Senate bill, the CIA director would report to the DNI and to the president.
Both versions would establish a national counterterrorism center (NCTC), but the House and Senate have disagreed over its powers and those of its director. Under the House bill, the NCTC director would report to the DNI and have only a planning and supervisory role over covert operations, which would remain with the CIA, the FBI and the Pentagon. Under the Senate bill, the president would appoint the NCTC director, who would report to the president and the DNI.
The legislation would permit the DNI and the DNI's staff to be located wherever it seems best for the new offices, which probably means the George H.W. Bush Intelligence Center, which houses the CIA. The Senate bill had prohibited the DNI from sharing office space with other intelligence agencies. CIA Director Porter J. Goss has begun clearing space for the DNI on the agency's seventh floor.