A House bill authorizing intelligence budgets for next year was derailed last night when Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) mounted a last-minute effort to limit the ability of the director of national intelligence to transfer workers from one agency to another -- a key power of the new office.
The bill, most of which is classified, was slated for passage on the House floor today, but Republican officials said it now will not be considered until next week.
Some senior House Republicans have long chafed at the powers conferred on the new office, held by John D. Negroponte, but went along with creating the position in December under pressure from the White House and families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Two of Negroponte's most important powers are the ability to set budgets for the spy agencies and to move specialists within the intelligence community -- for instance, from the FBI to the newly created National Counterterrorism Center.
Lawmakers said they expect the Sept. 11 victims' families to lobby over the next week to preserve the director's personnel power. An earlier statement from Negroponte's office had said the provision "undercuts the letter and spirit of the intelligence reform bill."
The bill signed by President Bush allowed Negroponte to transfer up to 100 intelligence employees after consulting the relevant congressional committees. The bill that was to be considered today included a provision stating that Negroponte cannot move anyone until he notifies committees and receives a response -- in effect, requiring Hunter's approval for the transfer of even one person.
The chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), agreed Tuesday to strike that language when the bill came to the floor. But Hunter fought against it yesterday, Republican officials said.
"It's a disagreement between Hunter and Hoekstra," said a Republican aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Rep Jane Harman (Calif.), the intelligence committee's senior Democrat, called the development "astounding" and said the personnel power is essential to the concept of a national intelligence director. She said the White House must weigh in, and the results will show how much genuine commitment Republicans have to the restructuring. "We fought this battle last fall and after endless hours and weeks, it was resolved," Harman said. She called the disputed provision "a personal pocket veto for Duncan Hunter."
Mary Fetchet, who lost a son in the World Trade Center and is a founding director of Voices of September 11th, said in a letter to Congress that the provision would "will hinder Mr. Negroponte's ability to immediately react to terrorist threats and jeopardize effective oversight of the nation's intelligence community."
With feverish negotiations about the bill continuing among House leaders yesterday, the Rules Committee announced that it would discuss the measure at 9:30 p.m. Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) surprised lawmakers by announcing last night that the bill would not be brought up and that the committee would not meet.