House GOP quashes revolt' intel bill sails toward passage

Republican leaders promised yesterday that immigration reform would lead the legislative agenda in the next Congress after last night’s expected passage of major intelligence reform.

After four months of wrangling, the House appeared certain to approve legislation that will create a national intelligence director (NID) who will oversee intelligence-gathering and budgets. But the exclusion of immigration reforms from the bill prompted some GOP members to oppose the leadership.
Republican leaders promised yesterday that immigration reform would lead the legislative agenda in the next Congress after last night’s expected passage of major intelligence reform.

After four months of wrangling, the House appeared certain to approve legislation that will create a national intelligence director (NID) who will oversee intelligence-gathering and budgets. But the exclusion of immigration reforms from the bill prompted some GOP members to oppose the leadership.
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Some GOP lawmakers accused Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) of caving in to White House pressure.

“The Speaker believes [immigration reform] is a priority for the next year,” said John Feehery, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s spokesman. “We had the wrong people in charge at the conference level,” Feehery said, explaining that the Senate was less willing to push the reforms.

Republican leaders made their commitment during a combative conference meeting yesterday morning when 12 members vocally joined Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) in opposing the bill.

Their continued opposition followed House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter’s (R-Calif.) endorsement after President Bush agreed to insert four words into the bill to ensure the Pentagon’s chain of command in intelligence-gathering would be protected.

Some lawmakers vented their concerns at the meeting that Hastert (R-Ill.) had caved to Bush by bringing the bill to the floor on what should be the last day of the 108th Congress’s lame-duck session, especially without the immigration reforms championed by Sensenbrenner and other Judiciary Committee members.

Although yesterday’s meeting was less contentious than one held Saturday, Nov. 20, when a majority of the House GOP members killed an initial version of the bill, no issue has divided Republicans in 108th Congress this deeply since their debate on drug reimportation last year.

During yesterday’s meeting, Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) challenged Hastert’s loyalty to the caucus, asking him, “Who are you loyal to? This conference or the president?”

Cubin said that Hastert would regret bringing the bill to the House floor and that they should fight another day. She also said the bill was driving a wedge between GOP leaders and rank-and-file Republicans.

A leadership aide said that Cubin’s comments “were completely inappropriate.
Basically, she was saying Hastert should not do anything without getting all the votes from Republicans. The way she said was that he was breaking a covenant.”

But other lawmakers were just as dismissive of the bill and its proponents, including family members of victims killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“It’s an emotional response,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). “We’ll be paying for generations [if we pass] a sweeping authorization [without appropriations].
“The White House does not need to win on every issue. Congress needs to stand up and hold its ground.”

Reps. J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.), Tom Tancredo (Colo.), Elton Gallegly (Calif.), Ed Royce (Calif.), Phil Gingrey (Ga.), Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) and Sensenbrenner spoke passionately against the bill.

Reps. Robin Hayes (N.C), Clay Shaw (Fla.), Hunter and several others, including Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (Calif.), said they changed their minds after new language was adopted.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered terse support of the bill: “At long last, it appears that Republicans have dropped their delaying tactics and Congress will have the opportunity to make America safer.”

Many of the bill’s opponents viewed the vote as a mandate on immigration reform and were upset that a provision creating a uniform licensing standard, along with a number of other requirements stiffening immigration rules, was cut from the bill.

Even Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the House GOP’s strongest proponent of the bill, said the entire Republican Conference favored immigration reform. His concern was that reform would undercut any version of an intelligence reform bill.

Other than introducing new immigration proposals, lawmakers said another possibility was to reopen the intelligence bill for amendments next year.

That prospect did not concern former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, a member of the Sept. 11 commission that investigated the attacks.

“We’re all delighted with it and extremely pleased that the president has gotten a solution worked out,” Lehman told The Hill. “The language that was inserted is perfectly consistent and clarifies something that was a little ambiguous.

“The issues that Sensenbrenner raised are important issues and need to be considered,” Lehman said, adding that Congress’s first priority should be to reform its intelligence oversight committee structure.

The bill’s passage comes after a strong lobbying effort by the White House over the weekend. Vice President Dick Cheney contacted a number of lawmakers asking for their support, and the president sent a letter to Hunter and other conference members Monday morning asking for theirs.