Intelligence bill languishes again amid White House objections

Tethered by a Republican senator’s hold and White House opposition, the Senate’s recently re-introduced fiscal year 2007 intelligence reauthorization bill may not make it to the floor. That would be the third time the Senate has been unable to approve the annual classified bill that authorizes money for the 16 intelligence agencies.

The hold is only part of the story, congressional sources say. The Senate has the procedural means to break any hold. The bigger issue is the White House. A White House source declined to say whether there were “red lines” in the legislation that might draw President Bush’s veto. But the source indicated that a compromise is still far off.

Both Democratic and Republican congressional sources say Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is the lawmaker responsible for the hold, and suggest he is acting in coordination with the White House, which objects to numerous provisions in the declassified report language.

DeMint’s office refuses to comment on the hold, first reported late Tuesday when Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Vice Chairman Kit Bond (R-Mo.) unsuccessfully tried to dislodge the measure with a unanimous-consent motion during debate on the homeland security bill.

“The Senate’s failure to pass this critical national-security legislation for the past two years is remarkably shocking and inexcusable,” said Rockefeller on the floor Tuesday.

Bond said in a statement yesterday, “The Senate needs to do a better job of asserting our oversight responsibilities over the Intelligence Community — that’s hard to do without our annual intelligence authorization bill.” He noted that the intelligence community had asked for many of the bill’s provisions.

The Intelligence and Armed Services panels recently passed the bill with bipartisan support, and it is largely unchanged since last year. But the report language contains provisions that the White House and some GOP senators dislike. These include a measure that would declassify the Intelligence budget total and assess whether declassification of the budget’s 16 agency components would harm national security.  

Other measures would expand notification requirements about covert and clandestine activities. For example, the bill could broaden the required notification of covert action to all members of the Intelligence panel, rather than the chairman and vice-chairman and congressional leaders, as is the usual practice. The administration also would have to respond to requests for information on intelligence activities by the panel’s leaders within 30 days. And the bill would require a classified report due May 1 on the administration’s compliance with the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act as well as another classified report on any of the remaining CIA secret “black sites,” due 60 days after the bill’s enactment.

Congressional sources say the Intelligence panel has been working towards a compromise with White House officials. Any resulting changes might go in a manager’s amendment if the bill does come to the floor, these sources say. One deal would limit budget declassification to the aggregate budget rather than allowing more sweeping declassification of the agencies’ budgets. The 30-day information deadline may also change. Another possible deal would have the report keep the location of the CIA “black sites” secret while offering only general information.

The Senate can break the hold if Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) files a cloture motion and calls for a vote on the bill. But that would open the possibility of another cloture showdown and, beyond that, the possibility of a White House veto. Congressional sources from both parties say securing 60 votes has a fair chance, but the larger sticking point is the White House. For that reason, the Intelligence panel is trying to reach a deal first.

Timing is the other issue. The Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to start work on the fiscal 2008 intelligence authorization bill next week. Staff aides say they may include the same report language in that bill, possibly with the compromises discussed. Alternatively, aides say, similar language could be attached to other bills.