As Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) continues to mull whether to have a vote next week on the stalled intelligence legislation, the top two Senate negotiators said today that they are unwilling to change the House-Senate agreement to satisfy a pair of House chairmen.
Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said they have already given in to countless House demands, and they do not foresee revising the bill to accommodate the concerns of House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).
“I don’t want to say I would never make any changes [to the bill], but I feel as if we’ve gone as far as we can go, that we’ve compromised as much as we can,” Collins told reporters in the Senate Daily Press Gallery.
Lieberman echoed that sentiment: “We really believe that we stretched to accommodate the concerns that they had. … Chairman Sensenbrenner probably has more parts in this conference report than any other Member of Congress.”
Meanwhile, a two-day House-Senate leadership retreat in Virginia’s Northern Neck this week produced no agreement on how to deal with the impasse, according to sources and participants.
One House GOP staffer suggested that Hastert may wait until next week to make a final decision on an intelligence bill vote, after he’s had a chance to call a meeting of all House Republicans, who will be returning Tuesday to vote on an unrelated appropriations matter.
But one Republican source indicated that Hastert is still reluctant to bring up a bill that does not have the support of the majority of Republicans. “The Republican leadership to their credit has traditional resisted rolling their chairman and their members,” the source said.
Though Hastert facilitated the original conference committee agreement before Thanksgiving and the bill is supported by a hefty bipartisan majority in the House, he declined to bring the measure up for a vote when a cadre of influential Republicans, including Hunter and Sensenbrenner, balked at the measure.
Sensenbrenner has sought to prevent illegal aliens from getting drivers’ licenses as part of the bill, among other controversial immigration provisions, while Hunter has warned that the measure, which creates a new director of national intelligence and a new counterterrorism center in the executive branch, could add an extra layer of bureaucracy that might prevent U.S. troops in war-torn areas from receiving timely and accurate intelligence. Both Hunter and Sensenbrenner found support for their efforts among the House Republican rank and file.
Collins said her staff is not drafting any proposals for further compromise, nor have any House-authored proposals been floated on the Senate side; however, she acknowledged that White House negotiators were huddling with Hunter in hopes of finding language that would satisfy his concerns.
“The White House is obviously trying to work out this issue, and they’re looking at a variety of options,” she said. Yet, she did not back down in her assertion that Senate conferees do not support changing the current conference agreement to accommodate Sensenbrenner and Hunter.
The Senate duo said they feel they are on solid ground in refusing to compromise further given that President Bush is expected to send a letter to House and Senate conferees today or tomorrow that strongly endorses the current language in the conference report.
With Senate conferees standing firm and House GOP leaders still appearing reluctant to pass the bill by relying on the votes of House Democrats, the onus for the bill’s success has been transferred to Bush, who has repeatedly said he favors the bill despite conflicting statements from other administration officials.
Indeed, Collins said she is optimistic that Hastert will finally agree to bring the bill up for a vote.
“I am basing my optimism on the incredible persuasive powers of the president of the United States,” said Collins. “When he is determined to accomplish a legislative goal, he’s successful.”
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a supporter of the conference agreement, said the failure of the bill will most definitely lie at Bush’s feet.
“If it doesn’t get a vote, one could come to the conclusion that the White House let it happen,” Shays said earlier this week. “When [Bush] wants something, he doesn’t let anything stand in his way. He’s one tough son of a gun.”
Shays went on to say that, despite Bush’s proclamations of support for the bill, “I have not seen his heart and soul in this process.”