Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The House-Senate conference on the intelligence reform bill engaged in intense negotiations yesterday but failed to reach agreement, effectively missing the deadline for the legislation to reach the president before Election Day.

Congressional aides said yesterday’s talks centered on how much power to give a national intelligence director. The creation of that post was a main recommendation of a bipartisan panel that investigated the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In addition, negotiators have not even been able to address other contentious issues, such as the immigration-related provisions in the House version of the bill, aides said yesterday.

Although the bill’s chance to become law before the nation picks its next president Tuesday dissolved with yesterday’s deadline, there was still hope an agreement might be reached between the House and Senate on a final version by the end of the week.

“It’s most unlikely that we will have a congressionally passed bill before the election, but we are now striving to reach an agreement before the election,” said Leslie Phillips, a spokeswoman for Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, who drafted the Senate version of the bill with Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican.

If a conference agreement is met, congressional aides said, it would set the stage for the legislation to be among the first orders of business during the lame-duck session of Congress scheduled to start Nov. 16.

Mr. Lieberman and Miss Collins continued meeting last night with House conferees, Reps. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, and Jane Harman, California Democrat.

At issue is whether the national intelligence director will control budgets of intelligence agencies under the Defense Department, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the intelligence divisions of the military’s four branches, congressional aides said.

The “big sticking point” is the national intellegent director, said John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

Jen Burita, a spokeswoman for Miss Collins, said that “negotiations are continuing.”

About 80 percent of the nation’s overall intelligence budget is for agencies under the Defense Department. The initial House version of the reform bill would keep control over such agencies’ budgets in the hands of the secretary of defense, but the Senate version would give the national intelligence director a significant amount of control.

The Pentagon is fighting to maintain its power over the budgets. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, wrote Congress last week urging “critical provisions be preserved” in the House version of the bill.

Also contributing to the impasse are several immigration-related provisions in the House version, including one to expand the government’s legal jurisdiction to deport terror suspects, and another to require asylum seekers to produce corroborating evidence that they are fleeing persecution.

Human rights and Hispanic groups aggressively oppose the asylum provision, and the White House has said it has “concerns” about it. But several key Senate Republicans support it and other immigration-related provisions in the House version.

There was frustration among House Republicans that negotiations on the provisions were held up yesterday, said Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, who has fought for the provisions.

“They’re all being taken off the table until the intelligence reform provisions are addressed,” Mr. Lungren said. “There’s just been a refusal by the Senate and House Democrats to come to closure.”

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