Senate Braces for Intel Turf Battle Later This Week
It’s do-or-die week for intelligence reform proposals in both the House and Senate, as Republican leaders make a final push to go home for the elections with at least one salient and timely campaign issue under their belts.
[IMGCAP(1)]Indeed, while Democrats have already begun labeling their GOP foes a “do-nothing” Congress, Republicans are betting that their enactment of recommendations by the 9/11 commission will overshadow their in-
ability to pass more than one of the 13 annual spending bills, a crucial highway funding measure and a repeal of European trade sanctions, among other things.
So far, all signs point toward a victory of sorts for Republicans in both chambers, with the Senate in position to pass its intelligence overhaul version by Wednesday afternoon, at the latest, and the House scheduled to take up its bill on Thursday or Friday.
Still, it is doubtful that the two sides will be able to reconcile their wide-ranging differences before they recess on Friday — setting up the very real possibility that Members will be called back before Nov. 2 to vote on a conference report.
But as early as Wednesday, following what is expected to be relatively smooth passage, the Senate is set to end its pre-election, pre-lame-duck session on what augurs to be a highly entertaining, but arguably esoteric, turf battle. It concerns changes in how the chamber oversees intelligence and homeland security issues (which Senate leaders have decided to debate and vote on separately from the reforms of the CIA and other intelligence agencies).
Indeed, it appears that the coming food fight could include lively scuffles between the chairmen and ranking members of several influential panels that stand to lose or gain jurisdiction in the process, including Appropriations, Armed Services, Intelligence and Governmental Affairs, to name a few.
Stopping short of the 9/11 commission’s recommendations to give the Senate Intelligence Committee both authorizing and appropriations power, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have ended the secrecy with which they have conducted meetings of a 22-member working group and unveiled a proposal to strengthen the Intelligence panel while creating a new Appropriations subcommittee for intelligence.
Reid defended the proposal by referring to a statement 9/11 commission Chairman Tom Kean made last month. “I think [an intelligence appropriations subcommittee] would be very much in my mind within the spirit of our recommendations,” Kean said at the time.
McConnell and Reid also recommended changing the current Senate Governmental Affairs Committee’s name to the Senate Homeland Security Committee and giving the panel jurisdiction over the newly created Homeland Security Department.
Though the proposal contained few surprises, that doesn’t mean it sat well with all Members.
An angry Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he would offer an amendment to give the Intelligence panel, which he does not belong to, the joint authorizing and appropriations power the 9/11 commission sought. Without that step, McCain said, “There will be no actual Congressional reform.”
McCain, who has often sparred with appropriators over what he views as “pork barrel” spending, also railed against McConnell and Reid for protecting the jurisdiction of the Appropriations panel, on which they both sit.
“The appropriators rule here — the fix is in,” McCain said. Of the prospects for his amendment on the floor, McCain noted, “I have not seen the appropriators defeated around here yet.”
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), an Intelligence panel member, said he too disagreed with keeping the intelligence authorizing authority separate from the power of the purse. But he said he was pleased that McConnell and Reid were allowing the fight to go to the Senate floor.
“The forces for the status quo … are doing their best to make sure these changes don’t occur,” said Lott.
When asked directly whether all of the 22 members on the working group were satisfied with their proposal, Reid would only say, “They didn’t all agree with what we did. … But we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Meanwhile, it was unclear Monday how shrinking the Intelligence panel might affect a current GOP Member of the committee — perhaps Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) or Sen. John Warner (Va.) — who could lose his spot because of a lack of seniority on the panel.
Currently, 17 Senators sit on the Intelligence panel, but the McConnell/Reid proposal would knock that down to 15. Democrats already are losing two members to retirement (Sen. Bob Graham of Florida) and a bid for higher office (vice presidential nominee John Edwards of North Carolina). This leaves it up to the GOP to cut one of their own.
There may also be amendment fights over giving Governmental Affairs power over homeland security, given that it would take jurisdiction from 10 standing committees, including substantial chunks from the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Other McConnell/Reid suggestions include: eliminating the current eight-year term limits on Intelligence panel members; making the Intelligence panel permanent rather than “select”; allowing the chairman and ranking member of the Armed Services panel to act as nonvoting members on Intelligence; allowing the Majority Leader and Minority Leader to appoint members to the panel; letting each panel member have a designated staffer; and creating an oversight subcommittee within the Intelligence Committee.
Meanwhile, the larger intelligence-reform bill, which would create a national intelligence director, must pass the Senate before the chamber will entertain notions of overhauling itself.
But Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who co-authored the bill, expressed confidence Monday that they’d be able to garner the 60 votes needed today to prevent a filibuster by those Collins described as “people who do not want any change … people who think that by going slow and offering a lot of amendments this won’t happen.”
But late Monday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) began threatening to prevent Collins and Lieberman from getting those 60 votes, because he was upset that he was not given more time to present his amendments.
The 80-year-old also warned that he could delay passage for up to three weeks if he wanted to.
“I’m up to it, and people better understand that,” he said.
Assuming the duo can produce a filibuster-proof majority, Collins and Lieberman still have the challenge of beating back amendments designed to dilute the power of the national intelligence director, which will remain a threat to the overall bill until it is passed, both Collins and Lieberman said.
“These are amendments being introduced by senior Members of the Senate — either senior members of the Armed Services Committee or senior members of the Appropriations Committee,” Lieberman said. “So I don’t underestimate, at all, the opposition. But I’m optimistic.”
In the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) need not worry too much about whether his proposal is actually a consensus proposal, considering that the House Rules Committee can easily prevent amendments from coming to the floor, and given that most Members in both parties will be afraid of voting against any intelligence-reform bill so close to an election.
On Monday it was unclear whether Hastert or other GOP House leaders would allow votes on alternatives to their bill, and it appeared highly unlikely that the House would move to overhaul its oversight of intelligence this week.