Friday, December 03, 2004

Reading The Signs On Intelligence Bill

December 3, 2004
By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- The fate of the intelligence reform bill, which has only a few days left to pass Congress or die this year, is up to President Bush, and that makes a lot of supporters nervous.

While Bush seems to be making a strong, renewed effort this week to get it passed, there's also evidence that reading his lips and his letters may not really tell what he's thinking.

There are serious questions about just how badly he wants this legislation. Some Bush-watchers and supporters - including key Republicans - wonder why a president who just got re-elected with an impressive mandate cannot end this drawn-out drama immediately.

"I've known President Bush a long time," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District.

"When he wants something he gets it done. ... It's a mystery to me why we haven't seen a more forceful presentation to the public.

"The White House insists it's making an all-out effort to win passage of the bill, which, despite having enough votes to pass, stalled Nov. 20 because two Republican House chairmen didn't like some of its contents.

Administration officials have a long list that details all that they're doing. White House staffers talked to key GOP leaders at a Republican retreat this week. Bush is expected to send members a forceful letter today explaining why the bill matters. Vice President Dick Cheney met with members of the Sept. 11 investigating commission Tuesday, and most important, Bush himself said at a news conference he badly wants a bill.

"I am completely confident the president wants this bill and is making every effort," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

"I have no doubt about that."Still, suspicions linger.

"It's always hard for this president to hide how he feels about something," said longtime Bush-watcher Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas.

"Look at his body language. Look at him," Buchanan said.

"There's an ambivalence there."

There also may be another reason Bush does not want to get too close to this dispute. House Republicans are flexing some fresh muscle in the wake of the Nov. 2 election victory, and Bush may want to save his political capital for fights next year over signature priorities such as Social Security or tax reform.

Losing intelligence reform may sting, but as political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said, "It's two years until another election. There's a long time for backfill."

And chances are a bill will pass next year anyway.

Presidents have a variety of ways of making things happen on Capitol Hill. They can threaten vetoes, withhold support in upcoming elections, and most usefully, call reluctant members into the Oval Office, look them in the eye and ask for their vote. Members given that treatment say it's hard to say no.

Bush has not gone that far yet, and that's what troubles some lawmakers because it indicates some reluctance to get involved when he's really needed. They wanted his help when they painstakingly worked out what they thought were precise changes in their bill to satisfy doubters, particularly officials with ties to the Pentagon.

Congressional negotiators had an Oct. 21 letter from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard B. Myers expressing his concern about who had control of the Defense Department budget under the intelligence reorganization stipulated in the bill.

That was worked out.

"The issue has been accommodated," Myers said Thursday.Last month, the negotiators thought they had pacified Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, with a last-minute change clarifying the chain of command.

And by mid-afternoon Nov. 20, the negotiators thought they had a bill, were touting their success, and Congress thought it was about to adjourn for the year.

But Hunter and Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., who had qualms about immigration provisions, stopped them cold, and there was a feeling among supporters that all it would have taken was Bush's iron fist to push them aside.

That push never came. Bush was in Chile at the time for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, and once he returned to the White House last week, there was a sense that he could get the bill moving again.

"When the bill got stopped in the House, he was halfway around the world and that made it a little difficult," Thomas Kean, co-chairman of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, said this week.

"He's home now, and I'm sure he'll do everything he can."

And he is, says the White House. They point to his comments in Canada Tuesday during a joint appearance in Ottawa with Prime Minister Paul Martin.

"Let me see if I can say it as plainly as I can - I am for the intelligence bill," Bush said.

"I believe the bill is necessary and important, and hope we can get it done next week."

The White House is officially saying, as strongly as it can, it wants a bill.

"Intelligence reform is a high priority for the president and he wants Congress to get this done as soon as possible," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

"You heard him say in Canada he hopes to get this done next week when members of the House return from their recess. And I also expect he will be in touch with Speaker [Dennis] Hastert and [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist in the very near future. And we'll keep you posted on that as well."

And yet not everyone on the Bush team seems to be wholly on board. Pentagon Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has a hard time uttering the word "yes" when asked if he backs the bill.

"I'm a part of this administration," he said last week.

"I support the president's position."

Myers, speaking to reporters at a breakfast Thursday, was asked to offer his unequivocal support. He wouldn't.

"The issue I was concerned about has been worked out satisfactorily," he said.

"I have no further comment."

When it was noted that was hardly a ringing endorsement of the bill, he said, "That would not be correct."

So how about an endorsement?

"I have no comment," Myers said.

"Intelligence reform is really, really important and they've got to get it right."

Does he have reservations about the bill?

"Don't read into that anything one way or the other," he said.

But it's that kind of response that sends strong signals to members of Congress already concerned that they are rushing to create a new intelligence bureaucracy too quickly. The White House says Bush understands those concerns, but he wants a bill anyway.

It's unclear whether there will be any changes to the measure in the next few days. Collins and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., told reporters Thursday they liked the measure as is.

"We've gone as far as we can go," Lieberman said, but the two senators noted one never rules out any change.

There could be more talks as lawmakers return to Washington early next week, if not sooner.

"We're always looking for ways to resolve disputes," Collins said.

"There are always people seeking clarifying language."

The real test of Bush's resolve could come as soon as Monday.

The House is due to return for a brief session, and if the president is serious, Shays said, he'll address House Republicans privately. Such meetings are rare, but are used by presidents to show how much they want something.

The White House won't say whether that's in the works. All it will say is what McClellan keeps repeating: Bush wants the bill.Buchanan doesn't buy it.

"He's just not jumping on this," he said, "the way he jumps on things he really wants, like tax cuts."

The above came from the Hartford Courant website.

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