- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Senators have made it much harder to reach a new agreement on the intelligence overhaul bill after their harsh comments during the weekend about the Republicans who blocked the measure, one key House negotiator said yesterday.

“An already poisoned well got poisoned even more badly,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and House Judiciary Committee chairman.

He and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter think that the compromise bill that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert wanted to bring to a vote on Saturday went too far in constricting the power of the military to use real-time intelligence and didn’t go far enough in clamping down on immigration security loopholes.

In a frank closed-door Republican meeting on Saturday afternoon, they led their fellow House members in opposing the bill to implement the recommendations of the September 11 commission and forced Mr. Hastert to postpone a vote.

Now, Mr. Sensenbrenner said, senators’ apparent strategy to ignore the immigration issue and try to assuage Mr. Hunter’s concerns over intelligence won’t pass muster with most House Republicans.

In a telephone interview yesterday with The Washington Times, Mr. Sensenbrenner said it’s a mistake for others to think that they can “divide and conquer.”

“Mr. Hunter and I have been working together right from the get-go,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said. “The thought that one of us can get peeled off is very, very unlikely.”

Mr. Sensenbrenner said the “personal invective of people who were on the talking-head shows” on Sunday means that Congress probably won’t reach an agreement before a new Dec. 6 deadline imposed by Mr. Hastert. Negotiators have not scheduled any meetings to work on the bill, and Congress is out of session for Thanksgiving break.

After the weekend barrage from supporters of the bill, Mr. Sensenbrenner and Mr. Hunter fought back yesterday with a long series of interviews to state their case.

The security provisions helped spark Saturday’s House Republican meeting. Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and a leader on immigration-control issues, led an effort to obtain enough signatures to force the meeting.

Mr. Sensenbrenner said he thinks that after that meeting, 80 percent of House Republicans were prepared to vote against the bill, which would have been a serious embarrassment both to President Bush and Mr. Hastert.

Mr. Bush called Mr. Sensenbrenner on Friday to ask him to drop his insistence for a provision that would have followed the commission’s recommendation and set national standards for driver’s licenses, including that the applicant be in the United States legally.

Mr. Sensenbrenner agreed, but in return demanded that the senators agree to other immigration security provisions that they already had rejected, including reforming asylum laws so terrorists can’t use them to enter the country.

He said he showed those other proposals to White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., who signed off and had them presented to the two Senate negotiators. But those two — Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins, Maine Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat — rejected those provisions, arguing that immigration provisions didn’t belong in the bill.

“It’s very likely that Congress is going to turn to immigration reform sometime next year. That is the time for the debate on these highly divisive and controversial provisions,” Miss Collins said Saturday. “They do not belong in the intelligence-reform bill.”

Those who blocked the bill have been the target of serious venting from some family members of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks and from some commission members.

“How many more body bags are we going to need to see before the United States Congress and the White House reorganize and modernize our defense and intelligence systems?” commissioner Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman, said yesterday on CNN’s “American Morning” program.

And on Sunday, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, specifically blamed Mr. Sensenbrenner and Mr. Hunter.

“I just think that Americans ought to remember the name Duncan Hunter and also Jim Sensenbrenner, because they brought the bill down, the most important national-security bill in the last generation,” Mr. Rockefeller told ABC’s “This Week.”

But another group of family members of victims, 9/11 Families for a Secure America, vocally supports the House, particularly Mr. Sensenbrenner’s insistence on the immigration security provisions.

Mr. Sensenbrenner also said those opponents focus on the intelligence side and ignore the immigration side at their own peril.

“People understand driver’s licenses for illegal aliens and gaming the immigration system to stay in the country,” he said. “They might not understand how intelligence is collected, analyzed and bounced off the satellite to troops in the field.”

Mr. Sensenbrenner had a meeting yesterday with Vice President Dick Cheney, but said it had been scheduled for a while and covered the whole scope of the president’s agenda for the Judiciary Committee.

“We did talk about what had happened relative to the intelligence bill,” he said, adding, “The vice president made no attempt to twist my arm. He heard what I had to say, and it was more on how we got to the point where there was an impasse.”

“I think he’s trying to figure a way out of this,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said.

Mr. Sensenbrenner is known as a no-nonsense negotiator, and lobbyists said they had no difficulty believing the scene on Friday when he told a White House lobbyist to remember: “There are a lot of things the White House is going to want me to do beyond 24 hours from now.”

“Once he sets his mind to something, that’s it. He’s tough,” said one Republican congressional aide.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, all immigration legislation must get past Mr. Sensenbrenner, and he said yesterday that contrary to those who say this issue should be separated out, he believes it’s central to intelligence reform.

“The immigration system has been gamed. It’s been gamed by a lot of people, including terrorists,” he said. “They know how to do it, and they see the vulnerabilities, and until we plug those vulnerabilities, America is going to be at risk.”

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