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Intel Conferees Remain at Impasse

Key House and Senate negotiators could not come to an agreement on implementing most of the 9/11 commission’s recommendations after meeting late into the evening Wednesday.

The talks between House Permanent Select Intelligence Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ranking member Jane Harman (D-Calif.), Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) supplanted an earlier offer by Hoekstra to present conferees with a House GOP-drafted compromise for discussion, which Hoekstra said “moved very, very close” to the position of the White House and the Senate on several key provisions.

The House bill has been controversial among Senate conferees, 9/11 commissioners and the families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because it includes provisions allowing authorities to more easily deport illegal immigrants as well as keep tabs on so-called “lone wolf” terrorists, among other things.

But despite what one House GOP aide described as even further concessions by Hoekstra during the four-person meetings, Senate conferees were unwilling to accept the proposed compromise.

Instead, the House GOP aide predicted conferees will face a series of roll call votes in open session on several contentious issues, rather than having a pre-packaged compromise awaiting them. Such an effort could prolong the conference committee’s work and make it more difficult to put a bill before the House and Senate by Election Day.

In another sign that GOP leaders do not believe the conference committee will complete its work this week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) sent a message to Senators telling them not to worry about having to come back to Washington this week for a vote. Frist told Members he would let them know as soon as possible about any potential votes next week, the last before the Nov. 2 elections, according to a Senate Republican source.

Conferees are under intense pressure from 9/11 commissioners and the families of the victims to get a compromise bill passed by the House and Senate and ready for President Bush’s signature before the elections.

But the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill remain a significant obstacle.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the conference committee appeared to issue veiled threats Wednesday to keep the conference from completing its business if a resolution cannot be found on the controversial immigration and law enforcement provisions included in the House bill.

“If we try to do this in the conference committee, we are going to be here for months,” predicted Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “If we find ourselves driving ourselves down the road to reforming the [law enforcement provisions] or reforming immigration, we’re not going to get our work done.”

Durbin and most other Democrats oppose the provisions because they say they could erode civil liberties, while House Republicans have said they are necessary to safeguard the nation’s borders.

Other conferees simply appeared reluctant to rush to passage in less than two weeks.

“There is a move to stampede a bill. We don’t need that, but we need to move with all diligence and dispatch,” said House International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).

And Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) expressed a fear that Republicans were hastening action on the bill to give Bush the opportunity to sign it just days before a closely contested presidential election.

“I think now that it’s become somewhat opportunistic. I think there’s an eye on Nov. 2,” said Lautenberg.

Still, House Republicans’ willingness to adopt much of the Senate’s proposal on how to structure the office of a new national intelligence director is a significant concession. Both the 9/11 commissioners and the White House have expressed a preference for the stronger budget and personnel authority contained in the Senate bill.

Hoekstra, however, also implied that he was interested in adopting White House proposals that most Senators oppose.

Hoekstra said House GOP staffers had been working for a day and a half on a proposal he originally intended to offer Wednesday night that would move the House version closer to the Senate bill as well as the White House’s proposals, which were outlined in an Oct. 18 letter to conferees.

Because of the White House’s support for some of the immigration and law enforcement provisions in the House bill, it appeared unlikely that the House was ready or willing to drop those at the insistence of 9/11 families and Senate conferees.

Indeed, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) staunchly defended those provisions, citing the need to cut off terrorists’ ability to enter the United States under various ruses.

“How can we face grieving families in the future and say, while we might have done more, the legislative hurdles were too hard?” asked Sensenbrenner. “Now is the time to enact these necessary and common-sense reforms.”

Hoekstra’s announcement of the House GOP proposal provoked protests from House Democrats, who said they had not been consulted about the package.

Collins defused the situation by suggesting that the four principle conferees meet to discuss alternatives.