WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives easily passed a sweeping restructuring of the U.S. intelligence community on Tuesday, removing the final obstacle to the most substantial overhaul of the nation’s spy apparatus in 50 years.
The legislation, which is virtually assured passage in the Senate today, would create an overarching director of intelligence to oversee myriad spy agencies scattered across the government. It would authorize spending for more border security and immigration agents. It also would criminalize certain activities, including support of groups linked to terrorism and participation in a terrorism hoax.
The 336-75 vote came hours after House Republicans gathered in a private morning meeting to go over last-minute adjustments and to assure lingering critics that their desire for tougher immigration provisions would be addressed in legislation early next year.
The bill aims to address the intelligence failures spelled out in reports by a joint congressional intelligence committee and by the independent commission that investigated the events surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. By creating a Cabinet-level director of national intelligence, supporters say the legislation will streamline the 15 disparate intelligence agencies, including the CIA and obscure Pentagon and State Department offices that also gather or analyze spy data.
Nine family members of Sept. 11 victims held hands in the House gallery as they watched the vote unfold in the chamber below them. When the vote count passed the simple majority needed to pass the bill, they raised their arms aloft and embraced as some sobbed.
“We are going to create a more aggressive, a more vibrant and a more organized intelligence community that is going to give policymakers the information that they need to make the appropriate decisions,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican and chairman of the House intelligence committee who led the negotiations.
The vote came after two weeks of haggling over objections raised by Pentagon allies and immigration control advocates within the Republican Party. In the end, 67 Republicans and eight Democrats voted against the bill.
House passage was a significant victory for President Bush, who had to spend political capital from his re-election victory in an unusual confrontation with members of his party. Supporters of the bill had initially questioned Bush’s commitment to the bill, but on Tuesday key Democrats and Republicans credited Bush for helping hammer out the final deal.
Rep. Jane Harman, of California, the top Democrat in the House Intelligence Committee and one of the main negotiators on the bill, had praise for Bush.
“Some people, including me, were not sure which side of this he was on in the early stages, or whether he might be on both sides of this,” she said. “But it turned out, in the later weeks, that he and his White House staff were all over this and really helped bring this across the finish line. That was not an easy thing for him to do … It is a big deal to bring this Congress together, this Congress that has sadly been so polarized and, I would say, so dysfunctional, and this victory is a huge victory for bipartisanship.”
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney weighed in on the negotiations after a pre-Thanksgiving attempt to bring the bill to a vote in the House failed.
The main barrier was Rep. Duncan Hunter, a powerful California Republican who leads the House Armed Services Committee. Hunter, whose son has served in Iraq as a Marine, wanted assurances that soldiers in combat wouldn’t have to answer to the new spy chief when it comes to obtaining crucial battlefield intelligence.
Negotiations reached a fever pitch Sunday evening, with one key lawmaker, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., signaling his approval to two crucial words on his Blackberry during a Kennedy Center gala salute to pop star Elton John and other performers.
Some House conservatives still planned to vote against the bill because it didn’t include tougher immigration limits.
In particular, these members wanted to create uniform standards for issuing state driver’s licenses that would have, among other things, denied licenses to illegal immigrants.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who leads the House Judiciary Committee and the most vocal advocate of those changes, also criticized the bill for not tightening standards for asylum seekers.