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THE NATION | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

House GOP Resistance Presents Bush a Clear Test of Leadership

November 29, 2004|Ronald Brownstein

The sweeping legislation to restructure America's intelligence community didn't collapse this month because it lacked enough support to pass.

The dirty secret is it derailed because it lacked the right kind of support -- at least in the eyes of the House Republican leadership. And that sets a precedent with ominous implications for bipartisan cooperation on issues like immigration and Social Security reform during President Bush's second term.

Almost everyone involved agrees that the bill to reorganize the intelligence agencies and centralize authority in a new national intelligence director has enough votes to pass the House and Senate. Today. Without changing a word in the legislation, which implements the principal intelligence-related recommendations of the widely praised independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Yet the bill has little chance of reaching the desk of Bush, who says he supports and would sign it.

"It's highly frustrating when you know you have the votes and you can't get it done," says Lee H. Hamilton, the vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission and a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Why has a bill with majority support in both chambers and the president's blessing fallen into limbo? Because House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has decided he will not bring it to a vote while it faces substantial resistance among House Republicans.

As speaker, Hastert has placed the highest priority on maintaining unity in his caucus. One of his guiding principles has been that no bill should pass the House unless it has support not only from an overall majority but from a majority of Republicans. Call it the Hastert Rule.

In this case, Hastert can't even say for sure that a majority of House Republicans would oppose the intelligence reform bill if it came to a vote. He pulled the plug after a compromise reached by House and Senate negotiators drew opposition from House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) and other critics at a Nov. 20 party meeting.

To a point, Hastert's reluctance to advance legislation that divides House Republicans is understandable. Any legislative leader who routinely pushes bills opposed by many of his members probably won't be a legislative leader for long. The question Hastert should face is whether there is no room for exception within that general rule -- no legislation where the national interest demands that he accept some fraternal tension.

The same question applies even more pointedly to Bush. No president relishes legislative fights within his own party. But for any president, one of the clearest tests of leadership is the willingness to stare down his own supporters to protect the national interest.

Bill Clinton promoted and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement even though 60% of House Democrats voted against it in 1993. He promoted and signed welfare reform, even though exactly half of House Democrats (and nearly half of Senate Democrats) voted against it in 1996. Even the 1997 legislation Clinton signed that balanced the federal budget drew opposition from a quarter of House Democrats -- including Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri.

Bush, in his first term, signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law and legislation requiring annual tests for students in reading and math despite opposition from many congressional Republicans. Mostly, though, he has advanced ideas only with broad Republican support. That explains why his first instinct in the intelligence standoff has been to pursue a compromise aimed at soothing House Republicans while holding enough Senate support to avoid a lethal filibuster.

But such a deal is unlikely. And that means Bush could face a stark choice: Pressure the House Republicans to allow a vote on the existing compromise, or permit the failure of security reforms that passed the Senate on a 96-2 vote and have been endorsed by the Sept. 11 commission, by the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees, and, officially at least, by the president himself.

If Bush lets the reorganization slip into the next Congress without a vote, it will deepen speculation that his support was always driven more by the desire to deny Sen. John F. Kerry a campaign issue than a commitment to restructure the intelligence community.

One senior House GOP aide, intriguingly, says the picture is so murky that even Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have sent conflicting signals on whether they want Congress to vote on the existing compromise. "I'm sure the president would," the aide said. "I'm not sure the vice president would."

After all the mixed messages from his administration, the best way for Bush to prove he wants reform is to demand that Congress vote it up or down.

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