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Intel Conferees Struggle to Meet Nov. 2 Target

With just two weeks until Election Day, a raft of logistical problems and intraparty squabbles threatens to prevent House and Senate Republicans from sending an intelligence overhaul to President Bush before voters go to the polls.

[IMGCAP(1)]Despite the fear of voter anger over inaction on the hot-button issue, as well as very public pressure from the families of Sept. 11, 2001, victims and 9/11 commission members, House and Senate GOP leaders have been battling for the upper hand in advance of Wednesday’s first

meeting of conferees, with each claiming their language best reflects the true intent of the 9/11 commission.

On Friday, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) issued a statement promising to work for a House-Senate compromise but at the same time noting, “the House bill is more comprehensive and contains some very important border security and terrorist travel provisions that will dramatically improve our nation’s security.”

Meanwhile, Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) have expressed optimism about reaching a deal with the House while repeatedly pointing out that the 9/11 commission and victims’ families openly favor their bill, which provides a stronger mandate for a new national intelligence director than does the House version.

“I can’t characterize [conferees] as optimistic or pessimistic. We just have to put one foot in front of the other,” said one senior Senate GOP aide.

The aide objected to news reports last week in which 9/11 commission Chairman Tom Kean and representatives of victims’ families were quoted criticizing the pace of Congressional action and calling for immediate intervention from the White House.

Those forces have “the potential to be counterproductive,” said the aide, who went on to note that no one in Congress is demanding that Bush “hop off the trail and weigh in now.”

Similarly, House Intelligence Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who is chairing the conference committee, said such outside criticism had hurt Congressional negotiations by being “blindly loyal to the Senate bill. … That was not constructive.”

Mary Fetchet, who lost her son in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and is the founding executive director of Voices of September 11, scoffed at the supposed problems Congressional Republicans have been having in coming to agreement on the bill.

“My sense is if they really want to have this in place, they can do it. They have enough time” before the election, said Fetchet. “This infighting has got to stop.”

Despite Fetchet’s outrage, 9/11 commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton pulled back a bit from Kean’s highly critical assessment last week, saying, “The fact that they’re moving ahead is encouraging.” Hamilton, a former Democratic Congressman from Indiana, called conference committees “the most difficult part of the legislative process.”

Of course, Hamilton reiterated his concern that Congress “will not be able to get a bill before the election.” But he predicted that “by the end of the week, we ought to have a better idea” of whether a bill can make it to the president’s desk before Nov. 2.

Indeed, it’s not as if House and Senate staffers weren’t hard at work this weekend trying to tie up loose ends, such as relatively noncontroversial provisions affecting banking and foreign affairs. But it remains to be seen what issues will crop up when Members meet Wednesday and seek to publicly hash out trickier details.

“The only thing you can safely say is that folks are finally at work,” said the senior Senate GOP aide, who noted neither Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) nor Hastert was likely to make a decision on when or if to bring Members back for a vote on the conference report until “conferees have a handle on their problems and progress.”

Hoekstra said he has put conferees on notice that they may be required to work on Thursday and Friday, and possibly into the weekend to resolve differences between the two measures.

But he said he is “very, very realistic” about the challenges to reaching a deal in time to call Members back for a vote before Election Day.

“The logistics of pulling this off are very tough,” said Hoekstra, who added that both House and Senate bills are 500-plus pages long, making it hard for aides to fully vet and compare them.

Still, he said, “Everyone is still very much focused on getting a bill done.”

So why did it take a week and a half to schedule a conference meeting? That depends on whom you ask.

John Feehery, spokesman for Hastert, implied that the Senate was dragging its feet in cobbling together the chamber’s original bill and the myriad Senate amendments, over negotiations on whether a House Member or Senator would chair the conference, and over which product would serve as the “base bill” for negotiations.

“We had our conferees ready on Friday” before the Senate passed its bill, insisted Feehery, who noted choosing a conference chairman was a tricky issue because “we’ve never been in a circumstance before where the House Intelligence Committee has to negotiate with the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.”

Hoekstra likewise complained that it took the Senate more than a week to produce a copy of the Senate-passed intelligence bill and implied that chamber’s delay could make it harder to get a bill to the president’s desk before the election.

Senate aides took exception to the House’s characterization.

“The Senate was the first off the mark to agree to act on the 9/11 recommendations, the first off the mark to write a bill, the first off the mark to put it on the floor, and the first off the mark to name conferees, which belies any talk of slow-walking,” said Eric Ueland, Frist’s deputy staff director. “It’s time for people to pipe down with conspiracy theories and focus on the work at hand … which is why we are gratified that Chairman Hoekstra is holding the first meeting of conferees on Wednesday.”

Even Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, blamed the House for the delays, in a letter to President Bush on Monday.

“It is time for the House leadership to stop pointing fingers and blaming the Senate for a lack of progress,” she wrote.

In fact, the House did not officially appoint conferees until last Wednesday — five days after Feehery said they were ready to be named — and Hoekstra was not named conference chairman until Friday afternoon. Because of the volume of amendments adopted to the Senate bill during two weeks of debate, the Senate enrolling clerk was unable to produce a complete copy until Saturday, Senate aides said.

But Fetchet said it all sounded like “excuses” to her.

“They didn’t need a final bill to get the conference up and running. … How long have they known there was going to be a conference on this bill? They could have planned who the chairman was going to be months ago,” said Fetchet. “I think they should have started immediately [after the Senate passed their version], but instead, they’re throwing stones at each other.”

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