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GOP derails 9/11 panel reforms

| Sunday, Nov. 21, 2004

WASHINGTON -- In a defeat for President Bush, rebellious House Republicans on Saturday derailed legislation to overhaul the nation's intelligence agencies along lines recommended by the Sept. 11 commission.

"It's hard to reform. It's hard to make changes," said Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who sought unsuccessfully to persuade critics among the GOP rank and file to swing behind the measure.

Hastert's decision to send lawmakers home without a vote drew attacks from Democrats, and capped an unpredictable day in which prospects for enactment of the measure seemed to grow, then diminish, almost by the hour. He left open the possibility of summoning lawmakers back in session early next month.

As approved by key negotiators, the White House and the bipartisan 9/11 commission, the compromise would create a powerful position to oversee the CIA and several other nonmilitary spy agencies. A new national counterterrorism center would coordinate the fight against foreign terrorists.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both contacted congressional negotiators by phone in hopes of nailing down an acceptable compromise that could clear Congress in the final hours of a postelection session.

But Reps. Duncan Hunter and Jim Sensenbrenner, chairmen of the Armed Services and Judiciary committees, raised objections. Officials said Hunter, R-Calif., expressed concerns that provisions of the bill could interfere with the military chain of command and endanger troops in the field. Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., wanted additional provisions dealing with immigration, these officials said.

"I am very disappointed that these objections have been raised at the 11th hour and temporarily derailed this bill," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the primary negotiator on the measure for Senate Republicans.

Collins said it was surprising, given Bush's recent re-election triumph, that Republicans were not willing to approve legislation that he favored and his aides lobbied for throughout the day.

Democrats were biting.

"The commander in chief in the middle of a war says he needs this bill to protect the American people," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who led Democratic negotiators on the issue.

He said the development was "particularly shocking after the president, the commander in chief, has been re-elected."

"Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House, and the blame for this failure is theirs alone," added House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, of California.

If lawmakers fail to pass legislation this year, they will render moot three months of hearings and negotiations that started with the commission's July release of its report studying the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Lawmakers would have to start from scratch next year -- if they even pick up the issue again. With a new Congress taking office in January, unapproved bills expire and new lawmakers and committee leaders would have to consider any new legislation.

Lawmakers originally thought they had a deal yesterday and the commission, a bipartisan group that sharply criticized the performance of intelligence agencies, had endorsed their work.

The deal "contains not only major reforms of the intelligence community, but significant measures to improve aviation and border security, and emergency preparedness and response," the commission's leaders, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, said in a statement.

The agreement had been reached between Collins and Lieberman and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., early yesterday.

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