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Doubts Grow on Pre-Election Intel Vote

House and Senate negotiators remain at an impasse over how to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission — something many insiders said would make it much less likely that the bill would make it to President Bush’s desk before Election Day.

After meeting in relative secrecy for two days, House Intelligence Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ranking member Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) emerged Friday to say they were cautiously optimistic that they can come to a resolution on how to establish a new national intelligence director and a new National Counterterrorism Center.

But the mood was gloomier than when conferees met for the first time on Wednesday, with Hoekstra — the conference chairman — promising to keep staffers working through the weekend toward a compromise, but admitting that if an agreement was not reached by “sometime on Monday,” it would be impossible to call all 435 House Members back for a vote before the election.

“We’re not putting it off and saying we can’t get it done by Election Day. But we’re not going to be moved by an artificial deadline,” said Hoekstra.

Collins, Harman and Lieberman echoed that sentiment.

“I think we ought to do this before the election, but with every passing day we have to be realistic about the fact that it gets harder to do before the election,” Lieberman said.

Hoekstra said he would not call a meeting of all 21 conferees this weekend because many Members were traveling back to their districts. Still, he said Members would use e-mail and phones to keep abreast of staff talks.

Though he had indicated Wednesday that a House GOP-drafted discussion draft would be delivered to conferees, the revised measure was not expected to make it to conferees until later this afternoon.

Still, both sides agreed that Hoekstra’s initial offer was just a first step, and Senate conferees expect to make a counteroffer to the House draft, Collins said.

All four agreed that the primary roadblock was their inability to agree on how much budget authority to give any national intelligence director.

House Republicans have opposed giving the NID too much authority over the budgets of intelligence agencies used by and housed in the Pentagon.

Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a House Democratic conferee, said he had been informed that Hoekstra’s initial draft would still give the Defense Department a kind of veto over the NID’s budget decisions regarding defense-related intelligence agencies.

“The reason we are at a stalemate is because the secretary of Defense is having his views largely dominate on the [House] Republican side,” said Menendez.

Menendez said much progress had still been made to resolve the controversy surrounding House-passed immigration provisions that had drawn the ire of civil libertarians.

While continuing to argue over language that would make it easier to deport suspected terrorists, Menendez said House Republicans and Democrats had agreed to require U.S. citizens to carry passports when traveling to and from the Western Hemisphere, agreed to add 2,000 border security agents, agreed to expand the definition of what constitutes a terrorist and increase penalties for terrorists, and agreed to accept the Senate language on how to deal with identification documents.

Meanwhile, the 9/11 Family Steering Committee — the most prominent voice for families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — issued a statement Friday calling on Bush to abandon the campaign trail to push for a Congressional compromise on the intelligence legislation and blamed House Republicans for the stalemate.

“Family members of 9/11 victims demand that the president immediately take time from his campaign to ensure that legislation critical to this nation’s safety is enacted,” wrote the group. “The momentum for reform has been stopped in its tracks by a minority faction of Republican House members who oppose this bill. These obstructionists have engaged in back-room maneuvering and have refused to schedule public hearings, in fear of having the American people witness their strong-arm tactics.”

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