Wednesday, December 8, 2004

The House last night approved a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s intelligence community, despite objections from a host of Republicans that bill was flawed and should be voted down.

If passed by the Senate — which is expected to approve it today — the measure will be the first major legislation passed by Congress since President Bush won re-election. Senate and House Democrats said the bill would not have been completed without his help.

“Some people, including me, were not sure what side of this [Mr. Bush] was on, or if he was on both sides, but in these later weeks, it was clear that he and his White House staff were all over this bill,” said Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat and her party’s ranking member on the House intelligence committee.

She said Mr. Bush’s leadership was clear, echoing Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, who said Monday that Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were instrumental in persuading Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, to support the bill.

Mr. Hunter had said the bill gave the national intelligence director (NID) too much authority over the use of military spy satellites that disseminate real-time intelligence to troops on the ground.

The Intelligence Reform Act passed 336-75 with 152 Republicans, 183 Democrats and the House’s lone independent in favor of the bill, while eight Democrats and 67 Republicans voted against it. Twenty-two members did not record a vote.

The bill would create an office of the intelligence director with budget authority over the nation’s 14 intelligence agencies, but not over military operations during wartime. In addition, it calls for information sharing among all the agencies and delegates certain types of intelligence, such as that on nuclear proliferation and terrorism, to the NID offices.

Removal from the bill of key immigration provisions previously approved by the House angered several Republican members, most notably Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin.

“This bill fails to include the strong provisions in the House bill because my Senate colleagues found them ‘too controversial,’ ” Mr. Sensenbrenner said yesterday. “That’s unfortunate, because their refusal to consider these security provisions on their merits will keep Americans unnecessarily at risk.”

He said the 19 hijackers in the September 11 terror attacks had 63 valid state driver’s licenses, which they used to “travel unfettered” across the country and get onto the planes flown into the Pentagon and World Trade Center towers.

Mrs. Harman said there are numerous immigration reforms in the bill.

“Many of them were supported by [Mr. Sensenbrenner], for 10,000 new border security [agents] in the next five years, federal standards on identification, technology improvement in communications for first responders and a host of others,” she said.

Mr. Sensenbrenner also objected that the bill did not include a provision to prevent the release of suspected terrorists who seek political asylum.

“This happened because the Ninth Circuit [Court of Appeals] has barred immigration judges from denying asylum by ruling that they cannot use their assessment of the defendant’s demeanor to determine whether the person is being honest, and that’s goofy, because in every criminal case, judges are allowed to do that,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who led the conference for the Senate on the bill, called the two provisions a “poison pill” that would have doomed passage of the measure this year.

“I think there is considerable support for overhauling our immigration policies, but the president was right that these issues should be dealt with separately because we could not allow this bill to die,” she said.

Mr. Sensenbrenner and several other Republicans — including Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California, and J.D. Hayworth of Arizona — asked that members vote against the bill and begin again next year. Others voted for it, acknowledging it as a first step and expressing hope that immigration reforms would be passed next year.

“I happen to believe that [the version originally approved by the House] was a much stronger bill than the one to be voted on here today,” said Rep. David Dreier, California Republican and chairman of the House Rules Committee. “The concerns that Jim Sensenbrenner had about the conference report are concerns that I share right down the line.”

Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican and his party’s chief deputy whip, said he would support the bill despite the fact that the driver’s license provisions that he authored more than a year ago in a separate bill were removed.

Mr. Cantor has said the fact that at least seven of the September 11 hijackers obtained Virginia driver’s licenses came as a “personal embarrassment” that he has vowed to rectify.

“We are not trying to keep people from driving. The issue is that the license is the entryway to just about everything we do in this country — buying goods and services, getting on planes, trains, you name it,” Mr. Cantor said.

Mr. Cunningham gave a speech criticizing Miss Collins — despite House rules that forbid members to speak on the floor about the Senate — for removing from the bill military funding to complete a retainer wall at the rear of the Miramar Marine Corps. Air Station in San Diego near the Mexican border.

“Well, that person should never have been allowed to become chairman of the conference,” Mr. Cunningham said.

The Senate plans to vote on the bill today. Every senator who participated in the conference signed the bill except Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, requested and was granted three hours of debate before the vote.

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