A Historic Breakthrough on a Historic Day The House on Tuesday overcame a major logjam to approve a sweeping overhaul of the nation's intelligence operations. NPR Washington Editor Ron Elving looks at how a bill that was close to dead last week was revived.
NPR logo A Historic Breakthrough on a Historic Day

A Historic Breakthrough on a Historic Day

It was Pearl Harbor Day, the perfect occasion for passing a bill intended to prevent sneak attacks on America.

The House of Representatives convened, debated and gave a wide majority of its votes to the intelligence overhaul that's been in the works for two years in response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The horrors of that day have often been compared to those of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese rained bombs on the U.S. fleet at anchor in Hawaii.

Both days were profound shocks to a nation that had thought itself at peace. Both were historical watersheds. And both might have been prevented if intelligence services had understood the evidence they had in the days just before the attacks took place.

But as the House gave its blessing and the Senate stood by to do the same, it was easy to forget how close this legislation had been to death last month -- or indeed, as recently as last week.

What saved the bill in the end? Without question, it was the vigorous involvement of the White House in lobbying for a vote and placating the key figures in the House Republican majority who opposed the bill. So effective was the administration's sudden offensive that one had to ask: What took them so long?

Back in November, when all the same players were in place and all the positions were clearly established, the White House let Congress go home without pressing for a vote. There was talk of returning in December, but no mechanism to force the full Congress back to town (short of a presidential order).

Congress might not have come back had it not been for a problem in the catch-all spending bill it thought it had finished two weeks ago. And that problem might have been fixed without bringing the members back, except that it required the consent of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who refused. Without that bit of stubbornness, the House and Senate probably would not have been in Washington for the last-minute lobbying the White House laid on this week.

The first visible sign of a new administration attitude came last week, when Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly embraced the bill. Earlier, Myers had questioned the potential interference of the new director of national intelligence in the battlefield chain of command. That buttressed the longstanding objections of Rep. Duncan Hunter (CA), the House Armed Services chairman, who soon became famous as the main obstacle to the bill.

Given that Myers works for the president of the United States, his reservations had raised real questions about the president's own position. But after the embarrassment of watching Congress go home two weeks ago without voting on a bill he had asked for, Myers' boss apparently decided it was time to clear the air.

Returning from a quick trip to Canada, the president devoted his Saturday radio address to the issue, raising the rhetorical stakes and specifically denying any threat to the chain of command. That greatly intensified the pressure on Hunter, who was scrambling for allies. For a few days, it appeared that he had one in his Senate counterpart, John Warner, who told interviewers he saw merit in Hunter's view.

But on Monday, when Warner went before news conference cameras, he was singing a different tune. He was praising Hunter for accepting White House assurances on the chain of command and agreeing to support the bill.

The White House also deployed its single most effective weapon in dealing with Congress -- Dick Cheney. Time and again, on budget fights and national security and energy battles, the vice president has been dispatched to garner the tough votes in the House and deal one-on-one with senators. His talks with Warner in this case were considered pivotal to breaking the logjam and facilitating a vote.

Cheney was preparing for -- and then traveling to -- the inauguration of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. But he found time for the kind of phone calls that make a difference.

Nothing the White House did was enough for James Sensenbrenner (WI), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who wanted to make this bill tighten immigration laws and impose a federal ban on illegal aliens holding drivers' licenses. Sensenbrenner still voted no, and brought a rearguard of bitter-enders with him.

But the fact that the bill could still carry a majority of the House GOP, and a clear majority of chamber's Democrats, showed that the real holdup had always been Hunter's. And the fact that Hunter's line collapsed without substantial changes to the bill (or reopening negotiations with the Senate) showed how close the bill was to enactment all along.

All it took was a little bit of attention from the right people.

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