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Hope for Intel Vote Fades Fast

Despite a last-ditch lobbying attempt by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to accelerate the process, House and Senate negotiators remain deadlocked over how to implement the 9/11 commission’s 3-month-old recommendations. As a result, the notion of calling all 535 Members back for a vote before Election Day is becoming an increasingly dim prospect.[IMGCAP(1)]

It appeared Hastert was trying to jump-start bicameral talks by meeting with the top Senate negotiator, Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine), Monday morning as he made a campaign swing through Maine.

Few details of the Bangor meeting emerged, but Hastert spokesman John Feehery confirmed that House Intelligence Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who also chairs the House-Senate conference committee, flew to Maine to participate.

Feehery said the meeting consisted of “a laying out of positions and a discussion about how to get from point A to point B. … There’s an understanding on both sides of the issues and a commitment to resolve them.”

Collins’ office put out an equally cryptic statement: “I appreciate the opportunity to meet with Speaker Hastert earlier today. He and I had a good conversation this morning. We are at a critical stage of negotiations, and quickly completing this legislation is a goal we share. Many significant issues remain to be resolved, but we will continue working toward an agreement.”

Still stalling the intelligence overhaul effort is the divide between Senate Republican conferees, whose bill is supported by the 9/11 commission because it includes strong authority for a new national intelligence director, and House Republicans, whose bill has been criticized as including provisions that are unnecessarily controversial as well as too limited in giving authority to the NID.

One Democratic Senate aide complained that the meeting was “typical” of Congressional Republicans “negotiating with themselves” and shutting Democrats out of the process.

Even with the Speaker’s 11th hour involvement, House and Senate leadership aides indicated that there was an extremely low probability that Congress would return this week to vote on legislation creating a new national intelligence director, while hinting that the lame-duck session would provide another opportunity for action.

“The meetings are long, and progress is slow, but everyone’s engaged, so you just never know,” said Eric Ueland, deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). “The leader did not put an arbitrary deadline on finishing the [bill] before the election. We wanted to do it right as quickly as possible, not wrong and yesterday. He … expects negotiations to continue and hopes for a successful outcome — a strong NID, a good counterterrorism and counterproliferation center — to put on the president’s desk before Congress adjourns this year.”

Collins and Senate Governmental Affairs ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) appeared to leave the door open to action during the lame-duck session, scheduled to begin Nov. 16.

In a joint statement, the duo said, “We will continue to work as long as it takes to pass real and comprehensive intelligence reform in Congress … with a goal of completing a conference report this week.”

They also announced the resumption late Monday of meetings of the top four conferees — Collins, Lieberman, Hoekstra and House Intelligence ranking member Jane Harman (D-Calif.).

9/11 commissioners and relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been highly skeptical of any Congressional action on the measure during the lame-duck session.

“To delay this into a lame-duck session only gives the possibility that the legislation becomes a dead duck,” said 9/11 Commissioner Tim Roemer, a former Democratic House Member from Indiana. “So much mischief happens in a lame duck.”

Roemer and others have warned that the political pressure of the election may be necessary to preventing the House from winning out on language to give the Pentagon more authority over Defense-related intelligence agencies. That language, 9/11 commissioners have said, would make the NID a weak overseer of the nation’s intelligence-gathering capabilities.

How much power to give the national intelligence director has consistently been the chief sticking point in negotiations. The Senate bill would give the NID much broader authority to move money and personnel among intelligence agencies, including those housed in the Pentagon.

Mindful of the prospects for the legislation during a lame-duck session, 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton warned Monday that Congressional inaction before the election could endanger national security.

“The sooner we get these mechanisms in place … the safer the country will be,” said Kean, who added that a failure by the House and Senate to come to agreement on the issue would be “a tragedy for the country.”

Hamilton echoed that sentiment: “The intent and capability of our enemy is clear. Al Qaeda wants to hit us again, and we cannot wait. … These opportunities come once in a generation. We believe now is that moment.”

Unfortunately for Kean and Hamilton, such scary rhetoric may have come too late to force action before the election.

While not giving up hope for an agreement this week, Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips noted that the weekend talks between the House and Senate produced relatively few agreements.

“On the question of whether the NID is going to have real authority or just be another layer of bureaucracy, we are not close,” Phillips said. “It’s looking bleak.”

Phillips said an agreement would have to come today — an unlikely prospect in her estimation — in order to get Members back for a vote on Friday, which most aides agree is the only day before the election that a vote could be possible.

However, Hoekstra, the conference’s chairman, already said on Friday that if no agreement was reached by Monday afternoon it would be all but impossible to call Members back for a vote this week.

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