Defying President Bush, Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter and James Sensenbrenner — who led opposition dooming legislation based on the Sept. 11 commission’s recommendations — said they would not change their minds without concessions from the Senate.
“It’ll be tougher now because the well got even more poisoned by the senators and their supporters thoroughly criticizing Duncan Hunter and myself by name on the talking head shows yesterday,” Sensenbrenner, of Wisconsin, told The Associated Press on Monday.
The two men turned back a last-second deal Saturday to pass stalled legislation to create a national intelligence director and a national counterterrorism center. The overhaul, which was supposed to help the intelligence community track terrorist threats, was one of the biggest legislative priorities of this year.
There was nothing left but recriminations Monday, with most of Congress heading home for Thanksgiving and Bush still on an overseas trip. No meetings of the bill’s negotiators have been planned.
The House and the Senate scheduled meetings Dec. 6 and 7 just in case a deal is reached.
Bush personally lobbied House Republicans and told reporters Sunday that “it was clear I wanted the bill passed.” But Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Hunter, of California, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, spoke against the bill in a House Republican meeting Saturday afternoon, forcing Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois to pull it.
That defiance will have repercussions, said John Lehman, a former Navy secretary who worked under President Ronald Reagan.
“This is the classic confrontation you see in Washington that they can sell tickets for,” Lehman, who also served on the Sept. 11 commission, said on CNN. “Because the president now has been challenged directly by the leadership of the Congress and by the lobbyists and by the bureaucracy. Now he’s got to show who’s in charge.”
What they want
Hunter echoed Defense Department concerns that the realignment of intelligence authority could interfere with the military chain of command and endanger troops in the field. Sensenbrenner demanded that the bill also deal with anti-terrorism laws and illegal immigration.
Sensenbrenner said that, at first, the Senate refused to negotiate on his issues until two weeks ago. Then, in direct negotiation by phone with Bush on Air Force One, Sensenbrenner said, he gave up on most of his demands — including tightening up requirements so illegal immigrants could not get driver’s licenses — after Bush called them a “poison pill.”
But when informed by Bush’s negotiators of Sensenbrenner’s concession, Senate negotiators refused to budge on his other issue — reforming asylum laws so terrorists could not use them to enter the country — ensuring his opposition.
“The Senate’s going to have to give in on some of this stuff,” Sensenbrenner said after meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney.
Hunter said colleagues asked his opinion in the Republican meeting Saturday, so he gave it to them.
“In a military situation, being confused about the chain of command is a dangerous thing,” Hunter told The Associated Press on Saturday night. “I was asked to give my opinion to the conference and the leadership, and it was [that] having a bill with that part of the bill — the chain of command — pulled out of it would cause confusion and more casualties on the battlefield.”
Hunter said he knew Bush and Hastert wanted the bill, but “what we have to do here is exercise our best judgment.”
“Having a son who just came back from a second tour in Fallujah [in Iraq], those are the folks I care about,” Hunter said.
Sensenbrenner said criticism would just make it harder to negotiate.
“It was tough to begin with. It will be even tougher after the Senate plus [Republican House Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete] Hoekstra had a press conference where they badmouthed Duncan Hunter and me, and everybody got on the talking head shows and pilloried Congressman Hunter and me,” Sensenbrenner said.
On Hunter’s and his issues, “the American people are overwhelmingly on our side,” he said.