With Republicans and Democrats still split over how to overhaul the Senate’s oversight of the U.S. intelligence community, turf wars over committee jurisdiction threaten to hamper the bipartisan working group charged with recommending internal reforms, some Members warned Wednesday.
The severity of the challenge was made tangible with the inability of the 22 working-group members to hold a meeting that had originally been set for today. The resulting delay could prevent the Senate from reforming itself during next week’s floor debate on streamlining executive branch intelligence-gathering under a national intelligence director.
The bipartisan 9/11 commission had recommended in July that any changes in the executive branch be coupled with a change in how Congress oversees the intelligence community — and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders pledged to do just that.
Aides blamed the cancellation of today’s scheduled bipartisan meeting on individual Members’ scheduling snafus. But a few Members suggested that the delay may also have been an attempt to impede the working group’s goals.
“One of the most successful strategies used in the Senate to keep something from happening is delay,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a working-group member. “The strategy of those who don’t want to change the intelligence committee is delay. This is really about turf and control.”
Similarly, Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), whose panel has the most to gain from any proposed overhaul of Congressional oversight, complained, “It’s clear the bulls and bears have come out of their pastures and caves and done a lot of growling.”
Roberts noted that since 1949, Congress has tried to reform intelligence 24 times — and “each time it has died a sort of slow death.” Roberts said he worried the Senate might end up “in a position where we don’t get anything done.”
Neither Lott nor Roberts would name the persons they suspect of delaying action. However, sources familiar with the matter pointed to appropriators, including Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
Stevens has resisted efforts to take intelligence-spending authority out of his committee. On Tuesday, he advocated slowing down Congress’ effort to implement the 9/11 panel’s recommendations.
Both Lott and Roberts said a majority of the 11 Republicans on the working group support stripping the Appropriations panel of its jurisdiction over intelligence agencies. Giving both appropriations and authorizing authority to the Intelligence Committee is one of the key recommendations of the 9/11 commission.
Roberts noted there is a “growing consensus” among Republicans to give such authority to his committee, but he cautioned, “That’s not to say there won’t be strong opposition on one issue in particular,” which he identified as the joint appropriations/authorization authority.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Democrats are just as split on the question of spending authority as Republicans are, with each side expressing “equally strong sentiments.” Durbin has attended working-group meetings and is a member of both the Intelligence and Appropriations panels.
Members also said the inability of the working group to meet this week means it’s unlikely that Congressional oversight reforms will move in tandem next week with legislation to create a national intelligence director and a National Counterterrorism Center.
“We are running out of time,” said Durbin. “I hope we can get them both done.”
Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) also doubted the ability of the working group to complete its work next week, saying he expected a result in “the next few weeks.”
Meanwhile, the leaders of the working group — Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — warned that they were still committed to changing the Congressional oversight structure before the end of the year.
McConnell and Reid also dismissed reports of turf battles. “The only consensus that really counts is the consensus at the end,” said McConnell.
A Reid aide added, “We haven’t seen it as a big divide between appropriators and authorizers. … They’ve got their heads down and are working through it.”
Still, McConnell suggested that not everyone on the working group may be happy with the final outcome. “My hope is that at the end of the day, we’ll come up with something that most of the 22 on the working group can support,” he said.