House Likely the Last Stop for Intelligence Reform

When Congress went home for Thanksgiving without finishing the intelligence reform bill, some members still held out hope of doing so in December. That was all pretty cheap talk at the time, because hardly anyone expected this lame duck Congress would actually return for a second post-election session in 2004.

As for the bill itself, the differences between House and Senate versions were too great, and defenders of the current defense intelligence establishment were standing fast against the most thorough revamping of that world since the National Security Act of 1947.

Besides, once the year's appropriations are done and the debt limit has been lifted, Congress does not return to Washington willingly. And as of a week ago, the fiscal housekeeping looked finished and the members were gone — probably for good. That meant no intel bill this year, which meant starting over again next year. Many considered it a dead letter.

But last week, Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, threw a wrench into the procedural works. She would not consent to a post-passage amendment to the huge spending package known as the omnibus appropriation without a floor vote. So that package has not yet gone to President Bush for his signature. At least some members are going to have to come back and amend it. And with Congress around next week to fix the omnibus, the intelligence bill could rise again.

What Pelosi did was this: She refused to consent to a quiet little pro forma vote on the day before Thanksgiving to remove a provision that had been added to the omnibus by mistake, according to House and Senate GOP leaders. The offending paragraph would have enabled certain committee chairmen (or their designees) access to IRS offices and files. It provoked an outcry when discovered deep in the bill.

No one has even tried to defend the IRS access provision, which is being blamed on unknown staff who supposedly misunderstood a member’s request. But to remove it after the members had left town required a special agreement between the majority and minority parties. Pelosi just said no, and that’s why we will have a second helping of lame-duck legislating this year.

This may not matter to the intelligence reform, of course, because the patient may be beyond hope. Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House, has refused even to bring the current version to a vote on the floor. Although he says he supports the bill himself — and he knows it would pass — he will not allow a vote because it's opposed by most House Republicans. That means its passage would come primarily on Democratic votes, and this the current House Republican leadership is not willing to accept.

For its part, the Senate has said it is not going to compromise further on the version of the intelligence reform it has approved overwhelmingly. The Senate clearly caught the spirit of the bipartisan 9-11 Commission that fashioned the basic recommendations embodied in the reform bill this fall. Why should the resulting version of the bill be changed, senators ask, when President Bush and a majority of both chambers supports it?

The answer would be: To save the bill in the face of die-hard opposition in the House. But at this point, there may be no compromise sufficient to accomplish this. Conservatives' resistance has now attached itself to the idea that intelligence reform would introduce bureaucrats into the military chain of command and endanger U.S. troops in the field.

Duncan Hunter, the California Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, says his son, serving with the Marines in Iraq, persuaded him to oppose the bill. On conservative talk shows, it has become a matter of "supporting the troops." Senate Republicans, among others, are agog at this eleventh-hour objection and the attendant rhetoric, but there it is.

So why doesn't Hastert simply bring the bill to the floor and, as the phrase goes, "let the whole House work its will?" The answer lies in a simple fact of life in the House, one that has long been true but rarely so vividly on display. The image of the speaker may presume him a benevolent servant of all (that's why someone else has the title of House majority leader). But in reality, the speaker is a highly partisan figure beholden entirely to the majority party. His first concern is the dynamics inside the closed-door meetings of his own party conference. Those are the votes that keep him in his job.

So a speaker who thinks he can set his own course or cut his own deals — with the Senate, the other party or the White House — will soon be brought up short. Ask former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who organized and led the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 but had his first rebellion in the GOP conference in 1997 and resigned in the face of another in 1998. It was in the midst of the turmoil that followed Gingrich’s fall that Hastert first grasped the gavel he wields now, and learned the lessons he is clearly following.

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