Saturday, November 27, 2004

STLtoday - Bush has tough political choice after bill stalls in Congress

STLtoday - News - NewsWatch: "Bush has tough political choice after bill stalls in Congress
By Philip Dine
Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
11/27/2004

WASHINGTON - The battle over intelligence reform is one President George W. Bush neither sought nor rushed to join. But now that he has become enmeshed in it, the fight threatens to overshadow the president's own priorities for a second term.

With last week's failure of the Senate-House conference committee to reach agreement on an intelligence bill, Bush faces a delicate choice between two potentially risky actions:

He can continue to call for change in the nation's intelligence apparatus but wait for those changes until the new Congress convenes in January. This is the easier course politically, but it means the president's ambitious agenda might be delayed while the battle over intelligence reform continues to loom - and possibly that no intelligence reform will occur at all.

He can aggressively take on the handful of House Republicans blocking a deal, in hope of achieving a quick solution when the current Congress meets briefly starting Dec. 6. That would clear the slate for other legislation he wants taken up, such as changes in Social Security. But it also could antagonize powerful congressional chairmen whose support he'll need later. And, because success on intelligence is far from guaranteed, he could end up squandering his new political capital in a losing cause.

"If it doesn't get done now, you've got to start over in January, and he has a huge agenda of his own that he wants to get enacted," said Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution who started as an aide to President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.

"And he knows from the history of the presidency that in a two-term presidency, the sand starts to run out of the hourglass, and that fifth year is very important," Hess said. "He's got a lot of his own programs on which he wants to build his legacy, and he needs to get off to a very fast start in January. To that extent, he's better off getting this done now, if he can."

But pushing the measure through now might require Bush to do something for which he's shown little propensity - wage an all-out lobbying effort aimed at members of his own party.

Bush's dilemma reflects how the effort to reorganize the nation's intelligence agencies is turning into an epic struggle on several levels.

There is, first, the issue of national security - how best to reorganize the intelligence community to protect Americans in an age of deadly terrorism.

Then there are the turf battles being fought among executive branch departments and within Congress by the various oversight committees, for control of personnel and purse strings.

Finally, political conflicts are arising on a number of fronts - within the House, between the Senate and House and, most recently, between Bush and key House members.

The push to improve U.S. intelligence gathering began with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and picked up steam with the 9/11 Commission's report calling for a national director of intelligence and a national counterterrorism center to improve data analysis and sharing among the 15 spy agencies. The fiasco over Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction added urgency.

As a result, Congress moved with unusual speed. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill based on the 9/11 Commission proposals, but House Republicans resisted some key recommendations. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, opposes reducing Pentagon control over tactical intelligence, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wants tough immigration measures.

Though the president says he generally favored the Senate version, the House GOP chairmen refuse to yield and the measure has stalled.

Yet the need for change is as strong as ever, says Wendy Sherman, former State Department counselor and now a principal at the Albright Group, a global consulting firm headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"Reforming the intelligence apparatus of the United States of America is absolutely critical. We can see that playing out over the serious situation in Iran, where the U.S. government says there are indications from intelligence of a covert nuclear program, and no one's sure whether they can believe us or not," Sherman said.

"The credibility of the United States is at stake, and intelligence reform ought to be at the top of the agenda."

Intraparty squabbles
Last week, Gen. Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated his opposition to an intelligence czar who would control tactical intelligence now under Pentagon control. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was forced to deny reports that he has quietly lobbied against changes urged by the president.

This is an unusual situation for an administration that prizes loyalty.

"It's a really interesting set of issues," said Norm Ornstein, veteran political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. "Part of it is a bill in which the president really didn't have much interest for a long time, never particularly wanted it. But he ended up getting invested in it at the end - partly out of a political calculus that it was going to pass and he wanted to be on board to declare victory.

"Then he became embroiled in a controversy he never expected or wanted," Ornstein said.

Bush has become increasingly earnest about getting a bill passed, Hess said, but doing so may require "making sure as much as possible that no one loses." That would mean allowing Sensenbrenner to emerge with some kind of victory, perhaps a promise that his immigration restrictions will be taken up soon on their own, and assurances to Hunter that any changes won't interfere with tactical intelligence to the war fighters, Hess said.

But Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questions how much pressure Bush will exert behind the scenes.

"It's a legitimate question whether the White House really wants this," Benjamin said. "That question has been begged by the fact that this president, who has all this political capital, who just won an election, just got stiffed by his own party on the Hill."

While dealing with the measure after the election allows for more sober reflection, it also removes much of the political impetus, Benjamin contends.

But that's a good tradeoff, counters Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign policy and defense at the American Enterprise Institute and a former top staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"The bottom line is this affords the Congress the chance to take a deep breath," Pletka said. "A lot of the deliberations about this bill took place in the campaign environment and were about point-scoring, not about achieving a better intelligence apparatus."

Starting over
Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., of the Senate Intelligence Committee, prefers starting afresh on intelligence reform with a new Congress. Bond contends that Hunter and Sensenbrenner have raised good questions.

All 535 members of Congress, and particularly the intelligence panels, should be involved in resolving the issues, not just the two dozen members of the Senate-House conference panel now engaged, Bond said. He noted that the Senate Intelligence Committee has been reconfigured.

"This is a good time to step back and do it right," Bond said, adding that he's expressed that view to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

But a Senate Intelligence Committee colleague, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says a "breakdown in leadership in the White House and the House Republican caucus" has ruined the best chance of improving the U.S. intelligence apparatus.

Durbin says a combination of powerful GOP committee chairmen and Pentagon officials - including Meyers and Rumsfeld - has stymied the will of the White House and even of the House GOP leadership.

"They put the president in an impossible situation," Durbin said. "He either has to defy Republican leaders in Congress, like Sensenbrenner and Hunter, or he runs the risk of no intelligence reform.

"The stars were lined up for this in a way they may never be again," Durbin said, citing the tragedy of 9/11, the push by victims' families for reform, the commission's report and the rapid response by Congress. "I don't know if the stars will ever line up again, and that's why this may be a missed opportunity."

Reporter Philip Dine of the Post-Dispatch's Washington bureau covers national security, defense and labor.

Reporter Philip Dine
E-mail: pdine@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 202-298-6880"

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